SNOW HILL – County officials this week officially approved the loan allowing Snow Hill to purchase a riverboat, with or without CARES Act funding.
The Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday voted 5-2 to approve a $400,000 zero-interest loan that will allow Snow Hill to purchase the Black Eyed Susan, a 149-passenger riverboat. Though the commissioners voted two weeks ago to use CARES Act funding to purchase the boat, county staff now say it’s not clear whether the funding can be used for the purchase.
“There is a reluctance for anybody to give us a firm yes or no,” Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said.
Tom Perlozzo, the county’s director of tourism, economic development and recreation and parks, presented the commissioners with plans on how his departments intended to use $250,000 in CARES Act funding designated for the south end of the county on advertising.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said he thought the county was using the CARES money for the riverboat purchase.
“This was a surprise to me in the packet,” he said. “I understand this is just on the slim chance the application to apply the CARES Act money does not get approved for the riverboat, this is potentially what we would spend it on.”
Perlozzo said that in the process of reviewing the CARES Act, county administration now thought a no-interest loan to Snow Hill for the riverboat was the way to go.
“We thought the best opportunity was to move forward with the small interest loan … and use the CARES Act money for what it was designated to do,” Perlozzo said.
Nordstrom said staff had assured the commissioners two weeks ago that the CARES money could be used for the riverboat.
“Again there’s probably more pushups in using the CARES Act money,” Perlozzo said, adding that the loan would allow Snow Hill to move forward quickly with the purchase of the boat.
Nordstrom said the county would use the CARES funding if it was able to, and Perlozzo agreed.
Commissioner Jim Bunting, who with Commissioner Chip Bertino voted against moving forward with the riverboat purchase last month, said he was confident the CARES funding could not be used for the boat purchase.
“If it is there will be opposition,” he said.
Nordstrom made a motion to approve the advertising plan if the CARES funding could not be used for the riverboat. Commissioner Ted Elder said he wouldn’t be supporting the motion if the CARES funding was used for the boat.
Higgins said it was 50/50 whether the funding could be used for the boat but that the county wouldn’t lose the money because it would use it on advertising if it couldn’t use it for the boat.
“This is crazy,” Bertino said. “This is one of the byproducts of not vetting this issue thoroughly, professionally.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic asked if the county had another grant to put toward the purchase of the boat. Perlozzo said that while he’d had conversations with Tyson officials who said they’d not be using the $100,000 grant Perlozzo had suggested could go toward the boat last month, he’d since received no formal agreement and was waiting for approval from the state for that. He said he just wanted the purchase to move forward quickly and therefore was recommending the no-interest loan to Snow Hill for the boat and the advertising plan for the CARES money. He added that the CARES funds had to be committed to a project by Dec. 30.
Nordstrom said the commissioners had voted to use the CARES money for the boat last month and he still wanted to do that. He reaffirmed that his motion was to move forward with the ad plan if the CARES money could not be used for the boat.
“To lower the cost of the boat it keeps it bearable for the towns,” he said.
The commissioners voted 4-3 in support of the motion, with Bunting, Bertino and Elder opposed.
They went on to vote 5-2 to approve the no-interest $400,000 loan to Snow Hill.
Bertino was quick to voice his objections. He said the county was being asked to loan money but had seen no marketing plan or financials for the boat.
Higgins said the boat could generate revenues between $250,000 and $3 million each year. He added that the vessel retained its value.
“Where’s that research?” Bertino said, adding that he didn’t want to take a leap of faith with taxpayers’ money.
He said the commissioners had initially been asked to vote on the riverboat at their last meeting with no supporting documentation. Two weeks later, he said they’d still received no information other than the proposed loan agreement, which they received just before Tuesday’s meeting.
“That our administration allows this to happen raises questions as well,” he said.
Bunting expressed concern too.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We didn’t have any information or facts.”
Bertino pointed out that Pocomoke had yet to officially sign on to the deal and added that just because he was going to be on the losing end of the vote didn’t mean his concerns weren’t valid.
“Our administration did a poor job in preparing the commissioners to make a decision,” he said.
Mitrecic said that if Snow Hill didn’t make its annual payment on the boat the money would be taken out of its grant from the county.
Gary Weber, Snow Hill’s town manager, said the town had a good credit rating and would make its payments.
“Snow Hill is good for the money,” he said.