SNOW HILL – In the two weeks since the county’s decision to move forward with buying land for a sports complex, the process has been complicated with a potential referendum, divergent concepts and lingering questions.
At this week’s meeting of the Worcester County Commissioners, Commissioner Chip Bertino expressed frustration with the array of conversations being had and information being shared by Ocean City regarding the sports complex. Councilman John Gehrig and Mayor Rick Meehan addressed the topic at a meeting Monday night. Though resort leaders have been vocal advocates for the complex, at this point it is entirely a Worcester County project.
“I guess it should be made clear to anybody that’s listening that at present, only the county is involved in this,” Bertino said.
At the close of Tuesday’s meeting, Bertino said he was aware there was a community group working to organize a petition for referendum on the bond bill being used to fund the $7.1 million land purchase. He asked what would happen to the purchasing process if the necessary signatures were gathered and a referendum was scheduled for November.
Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young said the county attorney would review potential scenarios but that he suspected the county would just hold off on using the bond funds until the question was resolved through the referendum.
“The halt on using the bond money doesn’t necessarily mean that settlement couldn’t go through because I read in a county press release last week that other avenues of funding are available, including fund balance as well as casino money or other sources,” Bertino said. “That would have to come back to the commissioners for a vote, am I correct with that?”
Young confirmed that would have to come back to the commissioners for a vote and added that the contract to purchase the land could be modified and the settlement date could be extended.
Bertino asked if the county had started conversations regarding the project with Berlin or Ocean City.
Young said he had not, though he was aware Berlin officials wanted to get involved in the planning process.
“We recognize Berlin is looking for information,” he said. “They’ve seen some concept plans. We’ve not put out those concept plans.”
When asked who put those plans out, Young said Ocean City had. He said resort officials wanted the complex to include a large indoor facility and likely wanted to see how many fields could fit with that.
Bertino said this was currently the county’s project and that county officials should be the ones speaking for it.
“So any discussions being had or any comments being made at Ocean City council meetings or on the radio about concept plans, these are just plans that are not coming from the county,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said during a radio interview that morning he’d reiterated that the county was just at the very first step in the process, purchasing the land. He confirmed that references to a private investor interested in the project related to a meeting he and Young had before the property was under contract.
“There were discussions previously regarding private entities putting money forward to help match if we did Program Open Space,” Young said. “Naming rights are on the table for the property … Right now I don’t think we have any serious offers to bring forward to you all.”
Bertino expressed his frustration that others in the county seemed to know more than the county commissioners.
“With regard to sports complex, it’s a little bit concerning that meetings are being had with potential sponsors etc. and this body is not being informed those meetings are taking place or what the results of those meetings were,” he said.
Bertino said the commissioners should know what was going on.
“I don’t think it’s fair I had to find out reading the newspapers what’s going on for the county when I’m one of the responsible people for the county,” he said.
Mitrecic said the meeting with the investor was essentially a meeting with a constituent.
“Absolutely nothing came of it,” he said.
Bertino said he remained concerned that the commissioners weren’t all aware of meetings being had with potential sponsors related to the sports complex. He said the commissioners should be advised of those meetings.
“I’ll expect the same from you with every one of your meetings,” Mitrecic said.
Bertino said he didn’t mean constituent meetings but rather sponsor meetings.
“If we’re having conversations with outside sponsors I do believe we have a right to know what’s going on,” he said.
As far as a potential referendum, the People for Fiscal Responsibility Committee is holding a public meeting at the library in Ocean Pines Monday at 7 p.m.
“This meeting is a way to bring together a cross-section of viewpoints and to share the information related to the planned petition drive,” a statement from the committee reads. “This is an inclusive gathering and all members of our communities are invited. The People For Fiscal Responsibility committee believe this project should be funded by the private sector entities, not by the county’s taxpayers.”
Patricia Jackson, election director at the Worcester County Election Office, confirmed Wednesday that the petition form had been submitted to the county attorney for review and approval.
“Once it’s approved, signatures can begin to be gathered,” she said.
In Berlin, the town’s planning commission is set to discuss concerns about the sports complex at a meeting next Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.