Wicomico Executive Candidates Discuss Issues At Forum

SALISBURY – Candidates running for the post of Wicomico County Executive were given an opportunity to share their views on several issues in a forum held at Salisbury University this month.

Last Wednesday, current County Executive Bob Culver, a Republican, faced off against challengers Jack Heath, an Independent, and Democrat John Hamilton in a forum hosted by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Salisbury Committee, and the Institute for Public Affairs and Civil Engagement at Salisbury University.

Culver pointed out that in his four years as executive the county he has bolstered its reserve fund by $10 million, established enterprise zones, improved infrastructure and more. If elected, he said he would focus on building infrastructure to handle new businesses and improving the schools.

“Part of the schools is not just the teachers’ salaries and books, but it’s the schools themselves …,” he said, pointing out the recent construction of new schools in the county. “The things we need to change, we need to take care of it while we can.”

Heath – the current president of the Salisbury City Council – told the audience he had a vested interest in Wicomico County and wanted to tackle issues that would improve quality of life for its citizens. If elected, he said he would want to develop a comprehensive strategic plan with municipal leaders and would support School Superintendent Donna Hanlin’s Imagine 2022 plan, which would establish universal pre-K, improve the graduation rate, and attract and retain a strong workforce.

“Education is the key driver for economic development and job growth, bar none …,” he said. “We have the highest surplus as a percentage of revenue in the entire state. As a taxpayer, if I’m paying taxes my goal is not to build a savings account. My goal is to reinvest a portion of the money to get a return on that investment, and I think we would be well served to do it with education.”

Hamilton said he was running for county executive because he believed there were more reasons to leave the county than to stay.

“We need to bring this county into the future with infrastructure, both aesthetically and functionally …,” he said. “We need to make it appealing and functional for the people who live here.”

When asked if they would take steps to improve the county’s per pupil spending – which is ranked second to last in the state – Culver noted that Wicomico was the 23rd poorest county in the state and currently gets significant state funding for school infrastructure projects. He said the only way to address the issue is to increase taxes, which he was against, or to develop more property.

“Because we are an agricultural area, if you want to lose the character of what Wicomico County is, then the first thing to do is to start developing every piece of vacant land we’ve got,” he said. “That will get us new money coming in, and will put us higher in the ranking.”

Health, however, said he would adjust the county’s priorities and looking into ways that would support both teachers and students without relying on the state.

“We just talked about what is the key driver for economic development is,” he said. “If we can bring new businesses and high-tech jobs in here and raise the average wage we will take care of our own problem without having to go across the bridge to get it done. The mortar and bricks are great, but they don’t teach our kids.”

Hamilton said he would improve per pupil spending by diverting funds from other areas.

“Every government eventually gets stagnant and bloated,” he said. “I guarantee you there is plenty of money that’s going to be able to be cut from other programs and diverted to education.”

The candidates were also asked if they would support changes to the revenue cap, which limits the amount of property tax revenue the county can collect each year. Culver suggested more discussion on the topic.

“I in no way think the revenue cap should be taken off,” he said. “Do I think it should be studied? Yes, I do because I don’t think people understand what it is.”

Heath said he would support changes to the revenue cap.

“I think we need to take a look at that and make a change because we have to be prepared to react in all situations,” he said, “and I currently think the revenue cap as it stands right now is not helping us.”

Hamilton agreed.

“The revenue cap is fundamentally broken,” he said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t try to fix it.”

The candidates on Tuesday also outlined their plans to support expansion efforts at the Salisbury airport.

Culver said his administration has already taken the initiative to improve the airport by adding enterprise zones and seeking carriers that would come to the county.

“We are the second largest airport in the state of Maryland,” he said. “We are not capitalizing on that. This is no longer going to be a crop-duster landing. We are going to put an 8,000-square-foot runway, and with that we can bring in cargo planes and jets.”

While he admitted he was not familiar with the airport’s operations, Heath agreed that the airport could be a significant economic driver.

“I think it is vital,” he said. “If we can attract a second carrier, especially one to BWI (airport), it’s going to make a significant difference.”

Hamilton agreed.

“The airport is a great asset to the county and it’s only common sense to support it and develop it as much as possible,” he said.

Each of the candidates also expressed their support for improving communication with the county council and municipal leaders.

While he noted that county officials may not always agree with each other, Culver said he encouraged debate and discussion among local officials.

“We are legislators, and if you don’t have strong-willed people you aren’t going to have any results at all …,” he said. “It’s good. It’s healthy. If you don’t have discussion, you don’t have any problems being solved.”

Heath said that he would commit to open communication.

“Communication is key,” he said. “If you can’t communicate, and you don’t communicate, then you are going to be shocked by surprises that come up.”

Hamilton said if elected he would work with officials to improve the county.

“I will be reaching out to every political leader we have for their opinions, advice and ideas for better ways to help the county,” he said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.