Wicomico Discusses Possible Public Drainage Association

SALISBURY – How should Wicomico County address ongoing drainage issues?

That was the question on the minds of county leaders last month as they met with officials from the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) to discuss the possible formation of a new tax ditch association.

Earlier this year, the county executive and public works department hosted a series of community meetings to identify and address drainage issues throughout the county after witnessing significant rainfall flood local roads and private properties.

Public Works Director Dallas Baker told the Wicomico County Council last month it was at those meetings that residents identified the possible formation of a new Public Drainage Association to address obstructed and neglected ditches that were contributing to the county’s drainage issues.

“Once they leave the county right of way, it’s a challenge to maintain them and keep them open,” he said. “A suggestion that has been raised through those public outreach meetings was the formation of new tax ditches to get these areas cleaned out.”

Public Drainage Associations – led by a local board of managers and assisted by the MDA – are charged with supervising the annual upkeep of public drainage systems and imposing assessments on landowners who benefit from its maintenance.

Dave Mister, regional coordinator for MDA, told the council last week that residents in a watershed could petition the county to form a new association.

“Certainly, tax ditch associations can be formed. That’s not the issue,” he said. “The issue is the process that has to be followed according to the code in order to establish a tax ditch association … One-third of landowners basically has to sign a petition saying they have a problem.”

Mister said a public hearing is then held and the county council decides whether to form a new tax ditch association.

“If they do that, once that’s been approved by the council then a board of managers is appointed to start this process,” he said.

Council President John Cannon questioned how residents could agree to start a petition.

“How do you start the petition process when the end game is to impose a tax on themselves?” he said. “At the initial stage, they don’t know what they are obligating themselves to … Is there a clarification process before the petition starts?”

Mister pointed out residents would be informed of its financial obligations during the public hearing process.

“At that first public hearing, there needs to be a discussion about what the burden will be on the residents,” he said. “Not only is there a maintenance fee to maintain the system once it’s established, but there is also the cost of constructing the system. There is a provision that the county can supplement that, but that’s money from the county that is being used.”

Councilman Joe Holloway questioned how local managers are held accountable for maintaining the tax ditches. He pointed out that many of his constituents complain existing ditches are not properly maintained.

“Where can the constituents turn if they aren’t satisfied with what they hear from the managers?” he said. “Is there an enforcement part of this code?”

While he noted that local managers were limited by the tax revenue they collect, Mister said any complaints should be directed to the county.

“If someone isn’t getting what they need from the tax ditch managers, I think it’s appropriate for them to come to the county and raise the issue,” he said.

Kilmer added the council could also appoint new managers if there was an issue, but Holloway argued it was already difficult to find people who would volunteer their time.

Council attorney Bob Taylor suggested the county could form a tax district instead of a tax ditch association.

“The purpose of tax ditches, as I understand it, was to make agricultural land more productive,” he said. “And what has happened is some of the agricultural areas have become developed. That’s the nexus of the problem.”

Mister added that infrastructure needs have changed, and while tax ditches are designed to remove 2 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, it would not handle large rainfall events.

“(Tropical Storm) Michael just dumped seven inches on the west side of the county in four or five hours,” he said. “No matter what you design it can’t carry that kind of water.”

Baker asked Mister if the association could redesign and enlarge the tax ditches.

“If we wanted to establish a Public Drainage Association, can we specify what the design standard would be?” he said.

Mister, however, said designing larger tax ditches would be cost prohibitive for the landowners footing the bill.

“Not to say you couldn’t design something larger,” he said. “The problem of that is where does the cost go?”

Mister encouraged the council to consider the information given to them.

“Maybe this is a way to address this. Maybe it isn’t,” he said. “But review this and we would be glad to come back and discuss it further.”

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.