SALISBURY – Legislative updates and a discussion on Wicomico County’s top priorities highlighted a meeting with state representatives this month.
With less than a month remaining until the Maryland General Assembly enters its 2021 legislative session, members of the Eastern Shore Delegation met with the Wicomico County Council on Dec. 15 to discuss the county’s top priorities. Attendees included Delegates Johnny Mautz, Chris Adams, Carl Anderton, Charles Otto, Wayne Hartman and Sheree Sample-Hughes and Senator Mary Beth Carozza.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, legislators told county leaders this week they are preparing for new rules and guidelines for when the session convenes on Jan. 13. Adams, however, noted this year’s biggest challenge related to the state’s budget.
“Especially going into session this year, the procedure is going to be different but the work remains the same,” he said. “In fact, some of the most difficult challenges we are going to have as a state relate to the budget, how we are going to fund priorities and what that looks like.”
Representatives in attendance highlighted the delegation’s priorities for the coming session, including economic assistance for small businesses, the extended distribution of highway user revenues and the establishment of the Horizon tax credit program in Salisbury. Other priorities for the Lower Shore, they said, include the promotion of sports tourism, education funding and increased broadband access, among other things.
“I think it’s going to take some visionary legislation and thoughts about how we are going to support Wicomico County, which is already sort of at a disadvantage when it comes to trying to gain statewide support for these sorts of things,” Adams said.
Carozza told county leaders the delegation needed to work together to promote the shore’s priorities and funding requests in the coming legislative session.
“We have to keep in mind the one constitutional responsibility we have as members of the Maryland General Assembly is to pass a balanced budget,” she said. “But it’s more than that for us on the shore. We have to make sure that we are working together and working doubly hard to ensure that there’s fairness in that funding across the board.”
Councilman Ernie Davis noted the county’s top three priorities included the development of the Salisbury airport, improvements to the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center and the creation of countywide water and sewer.
“Is there any help we can get from the state to move these three projects along?” he asked.
Anderton, Adams and Carozza replied that they were willing to work alongside the county to explore state grants and funding. They noted that failing septic systems remained an issue in Wicomico County.
“We’ve been working these issues from a non-legislative standpoint, and I would encourage us to continue with many of these issues from a non-legislative standpoint if possible,” Carozza said.
Councilman Bill McCain said one of the challenges for Lower Shore residents was getting septic approvals. He advocated for working with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to establish different standards for the Lower Shore.
“Most of our soils are clay,” he said. “They still perc, they just percolate slower. But they won’t pass. Then you end of with very expensive mound systems or you can’t do a system at all … We need a different standard to apply to our region.”
The delegation offered to help arrange a meeting between Wicomico County and MDE. Councilmembers, however, were quick to point out that prior communication efforts had failed.
“They are afraid to come across that bridge for some reason,” Davis said. “If they don’t come down here to see what we’re dealing with, how can they stay up in Annapolis and put regulations on the shore that aren’t the same for Western Shore. If we could get them down here, it would be a big help.”
Councilman John Cannon also encouraged the delegation to prioritize funding for Wor-Wic Community College and rural broadband access.
“This is a regional issue,” he said. “And of course, COVID-19 has made that an even greater need.”
He also advocated for funding to develop countywide water and sewer.
“We will not be able to accomplish this without some type of state assistance, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.
For his part, Councilman Josh Hastings encouraged the delegation to support the Horizon program, a new residential tax credit program to incentivize large-scale hotel or multi-family residential development in the downtown Salisbury area.
“We need density downtown if we want the downtown to grow and survive,” he said, “especially if we we’re going into an economic slowdown and recession.”
After further discussion, the council told state representatives it would submit its list of county priorities in early January.