SNOW HILL — With the calendar set to flip to a new year this weekend, several Worcester County Commissioners took the time to reflect on the struggles and successes of this year, while speculating on the challenges to be faced in 2012.
Though the high points for the commission were unanimously the work of county employees and strength of Worcester compared to other parts of the state, the low points of the year ran the gamut from the struggle over Snow Hill High School (SHHS) to increased state interference and regulations to decreasing property values.
The commissioners all agreed that 2011 was a big year. Construction on the new Pocomoke High School was completed, the quasi-governmental Liquor Control Board was officially taken over by the county and a hurricane brought Worcester to a standstill during the peak of tourism season.
As far as good news goes, Commission President Bud Church and Commissioners Virgil Shockley and Judy Boggs all agreed that just making it through the budgeting season with everything more or less intact was a victory in their book.
“The highpoint, I think, was getting through the year without tax increases, without layoffs, without furloughs, while meeting the school board’s maintenance of effort,” Church said.
Boggs and Shockley both stressed how important the people that work for the county, whether that’s for the school system, emergency services or other departments were to any success it had in 2011.
“They live in this county, work in this county, and give back to this county,” said Shockley.
Shockley called the work of public sector employees at times “an uphill battle” and noted that they go largely without thanks.
“These are the highpoints,” he said. “The people that give back to their town, they give back to their community, and they give back to their County.”
Boggs was equally appreciative and pointed out that county employees have carried on without a raise for three consecutive years. Shockley also acknowledged this, and asserted that he would like to see the commission break that streak. However, he pointed out that granting a raise next year would be difficult with the budget already shaping up to be a series of tough choices. Emergency services like police and fire were Shockley’s greatest worry when the checkbook comes out next spring.
“All of those essential things you have to have, eventually you can’t cut anymore,” he said.
In the case of fire departments, Shockley argued that a minimum level of funding needs to be established in 2012 to safeguard the smaller, rural companies.
“We’re going to have to put a floor under those fire departments,” he said.
Much of how the budget will play out next year will be determined by Annapolis, Shockley added.
“We’ve already had enough pain inflicted on us,” he said.
Besides holding the purse strings, Shockley had a few other issues with the state government in 2011. He views some Annapolis-born legislation like the recently passed Plan Maryland as attempts to wrestle authority for planning and zoning from the county and transfer those powers to the state.
“There’s not a state around us that has this kind of control,” he argued.
What frightened Shockley most was how “vague” he feels the plan is. It is so open and general, he said, that Annapolis legislators can do pretty much whatever they want as far as planning restrictions and justify it with Plan Maryland.
“They’re creating a book … and we’re not going to like the ending,” warned Shockley.
At a district level, Shockley, who represents Snow Hill, also had some concerns. First, he expressed worries over what he called “the battle” for Snow Hill High School. Earlier this year, plans to replace the decades old building were delayed due to funding troubles. While the commission has gone on the record promising to look for funding in their next budget, all of them admit that SHHS could be deferred again if sufficient money is not available.
The other major hurtle for 2012, said Shockley, will be addressing the intersection of Route 12 and US 113. Since its development in 2006, there have been more than 50 accidents at the location, several of them fatal. One such recent fatality pushed Shockley and the rest of the commission to ask for the aide of state delegates in convincing the Maryland Department of Transportation to install a traffic light at the intersection. Whether or not that will happen has yet to be seen, as the State Highway Administration is currently conducting an investigation of the fatality and an evaluation of the site.
While Boggs, who represents Ocean Pines, had her share of concerns about her district, she felt the positive things that happened in 2011 outweighed the negative, at least in her neck of the woods. She emphasized the success of the Ocean Downs Casino, which plans on adding a movie theatre and bowling alley to the property in 2012.
Boggs also highlighted the fact that natural gas will be coming to Ocean Pines and Worcester in general next year, something she has been campaigning in favor of for nearly a decade.
“It’s on its way,” she said.
However, Boggs admitted that once gas does become available there will be a lot of work for residents who wish to convert their current systems.
“It’s going to be a very big undertaking,” she said.
Church shared his colleagues’ pride and worries, but noted that a lot of what will happen in 2012 is riding on the budget in the spring.
With Worcester expecting losses of $7 to $10 million in taxes after property values in Ocean City were reassessed this year, Church acknowledged that making up for that missing revenue will be tough.
“I think the biggest challenge will be how we address that,” he said.
Boggs agreed and said that a tax increase might be on the horizon. It’s something the commission has discussed throughout 2011 and something they’ve attempted to avoid.
However the budget works out, Church was confident that Worcester can have a strong year in 2012 as long as the commission, county agencies and departments cooperate and “keep an open mind as to where we are and where we’re going.”
“We’re going to have to work as a team,” he said.