BERLIN – Economic development, poultry farms and even sea level rise were among the topics tackled by candidates at a forum hosted by the Coastal Association of Realtors last week.
Last Thursday, the Coastal Association of Realtors hosted a forum for candidates in this year’s Worcester County Commissioners race at the Ocean Pines library. Early questions focused on economic development and incentives for builders.
“We need to keep Worcester County attractive to the public,” said Jim Bunting, the current District 6 commissioner who is running unopposed. “If the public comes business will come. We have a strong economic development department but they cannot force a business to come to Worcester County.”
Judy Butler, the District 5 candidate seeking the seat currently held by Commissioner Chip Bertino, said she thought they key to keeping the county economically strong was taking care of the environment.
“They come here for the beach,” she said. “They come here for the water.”
She said the other thing the county could do to foster economic development was to expand educational opportunities.
“We need more than 12 years of school,” she said. “We need to offer young people 14 years, either two years at a community college or two years in technical training. If we have a strong work force the businesses will come.”
Bertino said that the county was in the position to set its economic development objectives now, as officials were in the process of hiring a new economic development director. He said the county was already working with Wor-Wic Community College to make sure the local workforce had the training it needed. He added that the commissioners had changed design guidelines last year in an effort to attract businesses to the county.
“There are multi-prongs to this objective,” Bertino said. “Quite truthfully it can’t be answered in one minute but I will say we are working toward that.”
When asked what sort of incentives the county could provide to new home builders in the midst of growing state regulations, incumbent District 4 Commissioner Ted Elder said the county would have to seek help from the state to reduce some of the costs associated with new homes. He said that the BAT septic systems were expensive yet unproven and that sewer systems weren’t an option in the rural areas of the county.
“We’ll have to put pressure on the state to try to alleviate some of these high costs,” he said.
Josh Nordstrom, who faces incumbent Merrill Lockfaw in District 1, said regulations from the state and federal level had to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“Some make sense and some don’t,” he said. “You have to have smart people and thoughtful people who are representing you to make those determinations.”
Commissioner Bud Church said the county had recently turned down a number of projects that would have been excellent opportunities for growth.
“I’m at a loss to explain that,” he said. “My residents in Mystic Harbour are paying on an $8 million sewer system. If the developments had gone through that would have reduced their risk.”
Candidate Zack Tyndall, who is running against Church, said one of the problems in Worcester County was that few young people could afford to purchase homes there. He said a more stable job base could help change that.
“Our economy is very cyclical,” Tyndall said. “We have Ocean City, we do the hospitality thing but we need something that’s going to iron that cyclicality out of our economy. That’s through a stable job base. That’s what I intend to bring to the table.”
When asked what the next step for the county would be if Ocean City received its long-desired tax differential, unopposed Commissioner Joe Mitrecic — who represents Ocean City — stressed that the resort was simply seeking fair funding.
“The Town of Ocean City has never ever wanted to raise the taxes or unduly tax the residents of Worcester County,” he said. “They’ve just been looking for some sort of way to get the county commissioners’ attention to get more fair funding from the county.”
Bunting said the parties involved needed to come to an agreement on a tax setoff or a tax differential.
“It can’t be more money,” he said. “If we give more money to Ocean City Ocean City can do whatever they want with it. I don’t think it will ever be seen by the property owners.”
Bertino said the county would have to raise taxes to provide Ocean City with a tax differential.
“The truth of the matter is if Ocean City prevails in its lawsuit and the courts rule in their favor the county is going to be in the position to have to raise taxes across the rest of the county,” he said, adding that he didn’t think it was fair that county residents should pay for Ocean City’s duplication of services.
Virgil Shockley, who is facing Elder in District 4, said that if the county did give Ocean City a tax break it would go to the property owners on their tax bills, not to the municipality itself.
“In order to cover that amount of money they’d have to actually end up raising their own taxes…,” he said. “To me, you just need to sit down at the table, close the door and act like adults.”
Several questions were submitted by audience members at Thursday’s forum. One asked candidates why the commissioners had allowed a CAFO to move forward in Showell. Bunting said it met zoning requirements and as such should be permitted. He added that he had stormwater and land planning experience and didn’t believe the project would hurt the Middle Branch.
Butler commended residents who’d taken action in exploring the project. She said that even if the proposal met zoning requirements residents could look into it.
“To say there will be zero drainage into our prongs seems impossible to me,” she said.
When an audience member asked how to change the fact that some school support staff and county workers did not make a “livable wage,” Shockley said there were two issues to overcome. He said the cost of insurance had gone up, meaning employees now had higher deductibles and higher prescription costs.
“The second reason is the fact that we, on the south end at least, are not that rich,” Shockley said. “It needs to be looked at. No one with a family is going to survive on less than $40,000 a year and make a house payment.”
Bertino said the county had changed a number of different job classifications earlier this year to increase the rate of pay for the county’s lowest paid workers.
“I think we’re making steps in that direction…,” he said. “That’s a conversation that’s ongoing.”
Another question from the audience directed candidates to say whether they believed in sea level rise and share their thoughts on how to address it. Church recalled his days as a “beach boy” at 17th Street but said that didn’t make him an expert on sea level rise.
“I know that the ice is melting in the Arctic, at least that’s what they tell me — I haven’t been there. I can’t prove that there is a rise,” he said. “If you want me to, I’ll stand out on the beach for a week and see if it comes and goes.”
Tyndall said he wasn’t a scientist and couldn’t speak to whether sea level was rising or not.
“I can speak to the fact that we are experiencing more storms,” he said. “We are seeing a change in our weather patterns. To that extent we need to plan.”
Elder was asked about the county’s distribution of funds to area nonprofits. He said that while he was willing to donate personally to nonprofits, he didn’t think the county should provide nonprofits with grants.
“We’re taking money out of your pocket and deciding where to put it…,” he said. “I don’t see where it’s right I take somebody else’s money out of their pocket and donate it to a charity of my choice.”