Worcester County’s Project Plan Defended

SNOW HILL — A review of Worcester County’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) drew questions from citizens on big-ticket projects like a new Berlin library, school construction and an expansion of the Showell Park, but elected officials defended their record of fiscal conservancy and reminded the public that a CIP is just a “wish list.”

The total estimated cost of projects in the CIP was $142.6 million over a five-year period.

“Of these projects, $15,566,498, or 10.91 percent, is proposed to come from the General Fund and $82,615,470 or 57.92 percent from bond funds,” wrote Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins in a memo to the commission. “The remaining portion would come from user fees, grants funds, state match funds, designated funds or enterprise fund bonds.”

While the CIP contained information on a number of projects that would require funding between Fiscal Year 2014 and Fiscal Year 2018, the library, the park and schools raised the most eyebrows. Resident Ellie Diegelmann had issues with all of the projects and the CIP as a whole.

“Engineering and design costs just seem astronomical to me,” she told the commission.

Some of the most expensive projects on the CIP include an upgrade of the county jail’s HVAC system at an estimated cost of $10 million in FY16, an expansion of the Showell Park at an estimated $2.3 million in FY15 through FY18, a new Berlin library at $4.9 million in FY15 to FY17 and renovations to Snow Hill High School (SHHS) and Showell Elementary School (SES) at $49.6 million and $47 million, respectively.

“I don’t understand what these figures are based on,” said Diegelmann. “Is there any bid process going on with these projects? I shudder to think of where we’re going to wind up financially in our indebtedness.”

The figures are only estimates, some of them far-reaching, noted county attorney Sonny Bloxom. And the estimates are not wild guesses but “informed figures.”

“Our people do this stuff year after year, so they’re not just pulling this out of their hat,” he told Diegelmann. “These are informed figures.”

Commission President Bud Church offered to have county staff sit down with Diegelmann to give her a better understanding of why each project is estimated to cost the amount given. Diegelmann declined and countered that it is fiscal responsibility, not transparency, that’s the issue.

“I have a better idea. Why not just live within our means and assure us that we’re not going to have taxes raised not just this year, which is an election year, but in future years?” she said. “Because it’s not only us who are paying the increased taxes, it’s also the absentee property owners.”

The county needs to get out of the mindset of “spend, spend, spend,” Diegelmann added. Church balked at the last remark, calling it an “unfair statement.” He referenced letters that Diegelmann has written to the media predicting massive spending that never came true.

“You wrote it as a matter of fact that was what we were going to do. Nothing could have been further from the truth,” said Church. “We didn’t adopt probably a third of what you put in the paper. So let’s be fair. We’ve been very, very conservative as a board of commissioners spending your money and our money. We’re all tax payers, too.”

Diegelmann wasn’t alone in her concern over the CIP. Resident Frank Gebhart wondered why the Berlin library needed a new, almost $5,000,000 building when he feels the current location is barely used.

“I live on Main Street in Berlin and I go by that library all of the time and I very seldom see very many cars in that parking lot,” he said.

One reason for that is because the Berlin library is easily accessible by walkers and bikers, according to Mark Thomas, library system director. The library is used extensively, Thomas told Gebhart, and makes a big impact with the small amount of room available.

“It’s a very busy and very active library. It has a very loyal and dedicated customer base,” said Thomas.

But the building, which was constructed in 1970, can’t keep up with Berlin anymore. It only has four computers and no dedicated meeting space. The building can’t be expanded upon because the county does not own the property, thus a new site will have to be located.

During the discussion, other questions were raised about the need for the proposed 40-acre addition to Showell Park and the reasoning behind the renovations of SHHS and SES.

In the case of the park, Recreation and Parks Director Paige Hurley referenced the success seen by Wicomico County when they host large sports tournaments like the World Series of Softball. A larger Showell Park with better facilities could open Worcester to similar economic engines.

As for the high cost of school renovations, Commissioner Virgil Shockley explained that most of the criteria are mandated by the state.

“They have a checklist and they go right down the checklist all the way down to the vents in the ceiling to the paint on the walls to the floor that’s down there, to the concrete,” he said.

Commissioner Judy Boggs stressed that it is a “living document” that will see major changes between now and FY18.