Primary Election Preview: Four Republicans Square Off For District 3 Commissioner Seat; Primary Will Decide Winner With No Democrat On Ballot In November

Primary Election Preview: Four Republicans Square Off For District 3 Commissioner Seat; Primary Will Decide Winner With No Democrat On Ballot In November
Pictured, from left, are Eric Fiori, Thom Gulyas, Shawn Kotwica and Tim Vanvonno. File Photo

SNOW HILL – Voters are preparing to head to the polls this month with early voting starting Thursday and the primary set for July 19.

Early voting for Worcester County residents will take place at Worcester Preparatory School from July 7 to July 14. The primary is set for Tuesday, July 19.

As it has in the past, The Dispatch sent each candidate four questions regarding local issues. Their responses are provided here verbatim in hopes of providing voters a better idea of each candidate’s positions as the election nears.

District 3: With longtime Commissioner Bud Church not seeking reelection, the District 3 seat attracted four challengers, all Republicans. Eric Fiori, owner of Bayside Jet Drive, among other ventures, wants to use his decades of business experience to help control growth and ensure the county has the infrastructure it needs. Thom Gulyas, a former Berlin councilman and owner of ACE Printing & Mailing, wants to follow in the footsteps of his mother, former commissioner Louise Gulyas, and is interested in expanding access to mental health care, supporting public safety and keeping taxes affordable. Shawn Kotwica, a local Realtor, wants to move the county forward in a fiscally responsible way while Tim VanVonno, who spent decades in construction and real estate, wants to support education and smart growth to ensure the county stays as it was when he moved here.

Q. Why are you running for commissioner? Please list at least three reasons.

Fiori: I am running for Worcester County Commissioner, District 3 because:

  1. Effective leadership: Effective leaders possess skills necessary to collaborate with others to achieve common goals and prioritize things when needed. With 25 years of management experience and 22 years as a business owner, I believe I will bring a unique skill set to the commissioners. I will respect everyone’s opinion and channel compromise, while striving for the most positive outcome for all involved. Internal conflict cannot be allowed to hinder progress. A skilled manager can consider all opinions, weigh them equally with respect, and extract the best points for an optimal solution. It would be my great honor to serve Worcester County.
  2. Sharpening planning and zoning: I own EJF Real Estate LLC which is the entity that holds both of my boat dealership locations. My boat dealerships reside on large parcels of commercial land which require many interactions with planning and zoning. When I first began investing in property in early 2008, the leadership in the county were excited to see new business and eager to help with new growth. As time went on, I have continued small commercial projects throughout the county, but this process has become increasingly difficult and frustrating at times. Commercial and residential growth is a key factor to increasing revenue, and I want to put proper leadership in place that will be excited to work with new and growing businesses in Worcester County.
  3. Love for the county: I spent many summers down at the shore, but made Worcester County my home after college in 2000. I grew up on the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County with a love for the water and the beauty of our natural resources here in Maryland. Moving east to Worcester County allowed me to take in much of the beauty in this state. I want to protect these natural resources as we live, work and enjoy this county we call home. Growth is inevitable, but controlled growth is a fiscal responsibility. With comprehensive rezoning plans on the horizon, I want to be a part of the next chapter in this crown jewel of Maryland.

Gulyas: I’ve always felt pulled toward local governmental politics, especially since my mother was a dynamic Worcester County Commissioner. In 2014 and 2018, I successfully ran for the Berlin Town Council to give back to my community.

Municipal level politics can be rewarding, yet challenging, and gave me the opportunity to see the immediate results of the positive impacts I, and the rest of the council, made. Berlin has over 70 employees who allow that town to operate. Berlin couldn’t succeed without the help of these dedicated people. I’m still very proud of them today. After six years as Berlin councilman, I stepped down because we started building our forever home in South Point, eager to get back on the water, with its refreshing, breathtaking views.

Worcester County is my home. I care about it, and every resident, very deeply. You have my word that I will diligently work for you.

Kotwica: I believe that we can move forward in a tactical way to improve the county as a whole, while preserving the beauty for which we are all here to enjoy. Being fiscally responsible is something I pride myself, my family and our businesses for carrying out in the truest of form, and for which I would like to support the county in doing so as well.

We must focus on public safety first as we all see with the recent events at BIS. Not only with police, fire and EMS but also taking into account mental health professionals as well.

Long-term planned strategic growth focusing on the proper infrastructures first, and then developing based on a quality foundation of better roads, strong adequate wi-fi and proper water and sewer infrastructure to protect our shores.

VanVonno: 1. Preserving community spirit, values and health. In 2007 my wife, Catherine and I decided to move to Worcester County from Fairfax, Va. to raise our four children. We spent many weekends and summers prior enjoying the beautiful, peaceful and safe community spirit. It reminded me of “the way things were when I grew up” with core values of respect for community and country, nurturing educational environment, safety and responsive law enforcement and family friendly values. Over the last 15 years, I have been able to communicate and work with so many citizens, politicians, county officials and business owners. My children have all grown to be educated, responsible adults and successful college attendance through their experiences with Ocean City Elementary, Berlin Intermediate, Worcester Prep, Worcester Tech and Stephen Decatur High School. The district has had tremendous growth and changes and I want to make sure the same values and principles that brought us here remain in place.

  1. Smart growth and creating a tax base for county development: Will support to create more infill growth around population centers with existing water and sewer capabilities. Worcester County needs to consider all aspects of development and economic impact to the school system, taxes, traffic, employment, sewer/water availability, police/fire support, county administration usage and environment.
  2. Continue to strengthen our educational system: Continue to have Worcester County focus on providing top level education and balancing growth and cost controls. This will allow for proper compensation for teachers and administrators, bus drivers and all the necessary tools to make sure all students are prepared for college, trade school and or chosen career path.
  3. Responsive communication for citizens. I will assist the community in getting their concerns addressed and facilitate communication to the commissioners, local and state officials and always be available to help in any way possible.
  4. Environmental responsibility. Worcester County is home to the most spectacular natural beauty. Every decision that will affect the environment needs to be studied and mitigated to preserve this County. Things such as solar energy, energy conservation programs, making sure the current econ-system is nourished and or repaired, more accessible recycling programs and a more efficient approval program between all levels of government. Water and sewer expansion is also vital to meet the capacity, growth and reduce polluting the aquifer.
  5. Small business development and support: Will support by facilitating licensing, permits, lower taxes, community development programs, promoting local citizen entrepreneurship and providing affordable housing to encourage labor growth and availability.
  6. Safety. Will support and increased (if needed) resources needed to provide adequate police, fire and rescue support to the community. Need to make sure crime issues are met with direct action and every citizen feels safe.
  7. Increased support for Atlantic General Hospital: Atlantic General Hospital is an integral part of our local community to provide health and well-being for the local community and should be supported financially by the County. For example, the emergency doctors that work at AGH are also a part of a group that works at TidalHealth and PRMC. They save the lives of our citizens and a great community hospital.
  8. Experience and educational background. My wife Catherine and I have been together for 32 years and raised four children to include 3 daughters Christina (law school graduate and law clerk in Worcester County), Cassidy (childhood Broadway Star and graduate of performing arts LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, N.Y. and college student) and Chelsea (currently studying journalism in college) and my son Timmy (civil engineering degree from University of Maryland). Timmy has taken over the day-to-day operations of my businesses and allowed me to have the time and opportunity to run for commissioner and serve my district. My experiences both professional and personal will allow me to understand the issues facing our District and County.

Being a small business owner all my adult life has given me the opportunity to truly understand the responsibility and work ethic needed for success. Other components include working through economic cycles (good and bad), regulatory hurdles and through a more and more litigious environment.

Q. In your opinion, what are the three biggest issues facing Worcester County currently?

Fiori: 1. First responder funding: With more and more people discovering that Worcester County is a wonderful place to live, this raises the challenges of policing and emergency response times being negatively affected due to inadequate funding. We need to ensure that our county is safe, no matter in which end you live.

  1. Comprehensive rezoning and growth planning: With our explosive growth in the county, infrastructure needs arise. Planned infrastructure and controlled growth needs to be on the minds of all leadership within the county. Many of our sewer systems are at or nearing capacity in the north end of the county. To plan for this growth, we need to plan for the basic needs of our citizens. This would include new sewer and water facilities in areas which we would like this growth to occur. Neighboring states’ growth has exploded without proper planning and I do not want to see that happen in this beautiful place we call home.
  2. Educational funding: The Worcester County Public School System is the reason many families move to our county. With many Blue Ribbon accredited schools, families strive to make Worcester County home. With the influx of new families, our class sizes are growing year after year and we will soon be bursting at the seams. Raising the revenue to properly fund our school systems and keep our exemplary reputation needs to be a high priority when making budget decisions. It took many years to build such an amazing school system and leadership will need to find ways to keep the momentum as class sizes continue to increase.

Gulyas: There are far more than just three … bringing better access to mental health care in Worcester County for both adults and children; public safety including police, fire and ambulance services; keeping taxes – business, personal and property – affordable; bringing fire/ambulance service to West Ocean City where it is sorely needed; closely watching the rate of development, expansion and sprawl; supporting our schools, each precious child and the dedicated teachers, administrators and staff; we need central booking at our jail quickly to allow officers to do their jobs; protecting our schools with additional SROs; working on biking, walking paths and traffic safety on county roads; approaching development in South Point, where I live, with logic and design; guaranteeing Worcester County employees are paid fairly and equitably; and being in favor of building a multimillion-dollar sports core complex, but only if its financing is done with foresight and wisdom and not taxpayer money.

Kotwica: Public safety and adequate funding for service, affordable housing, long-term planning for proper infrastructure.

VanVonno: 1. Social issues such as mental/behavioral health, keeping kids safe from drugs and continued public health and suicide prevention programs.

  1. Creating smart growth around existing population centers.
  2. Create a new updated comprehensive plan to meet the current issues of the county such as job creation, land use, population growth, zoning guidelines, agricultural accommodations, affordable housing and upcoming issues.

Q. In recent years, the commissioners have used fund balance from prior years to balance the budget. What can the county do to build a more sustainable budget to address the fact that requested expenditures exceed anticipated revenues most years?

Fiori: In recent months, there has been a mass exodus in planning and zoning due to HR related issues. Planning and zoning is so difficult to work with that local business owners do not want to reinvest or schedule improvements thus hindering forward progress within the county. Fixing the difficulties within planning and zoning will increase the tax base which is the main income generator for Worcester County. With phase in three-year assessments averaging 20% increase in value per property, this reassessment alone will generate considerable revenue. Allowing planning and zoning to both run more efficiently as well as a more desirable entity to work with, reassessments on properties with major improvements will also assist in increasing revenue county wide.

Gulyas: In years of “fund balance overages,” the commissioners have done a good job of saving that for a rainy day. I’ve got no issues with pulling from fund balance to budget the next FY budget so long as the amount is not material in nature. An $11 million shortfall is obviously material, and you need to roll up your sleeves and dig in. Unfortunately, cuts must be made. With reassessments in the county being broken into north, central and south, this number will change at any given time. Add to that fact that inflation plays a huge roll in revenue streams. When the housing bubble bursts again, assessments will fall as will the revenue the county receives. Costs will continue to increase or at least stay consistent. Worcester County needs someone like me with experience to tackle these difficult decisions.

Kotwica: Fiscal responsibility: It all starts at home, and how one operates their own finances. I come from a strict budgeting background where if you don’t budget for it, it’s not happening. We must demand more from the staff members who create their department’s budget and hold them accountable to those budget numbers. Having an emergency spending fund is part of that planning. You must consider all facets of expenses when planning, plan the best you can, and have the appropriate proportionate emergency fund for unexpected variable cost in each category of expenditures. We pay off our business and personal credit cards at home at the end of every month. Simply put- if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. Fixed costs exist and rise over time, and variable cost can be controlled, monitored and directly correlated to expectations. This is not by mistake, but carefully planned not just this year, but in consideration for the future markets to come. Setting up the goals of this year and looking into comprehensive plan to plan for future expenditures as well.

VanVonno: Again smart growth is key to provide additional tax base. For example, a self storage facility in Route 589 corridor can be built and have the ability to tie into existing population centers with existing water and sewer. This will provide a large property tax base to the county to be used in other areas by minimizing the usage of the school system, police/fire and other county resources. Sewer and wastewater expansion is also a critical component to reduce pollution to the aquifer as development continues. Finally promote development in these population centers with possibly reduced cost of EDU’s, streamline permitting, initial tax incentives and or lower impact fees (with long term tax revenue in mind).

Q. The commissioners’ 4-3 vote to move forward with purchasing land for a sports complex has been a hot topic in the weeks since. How would you have voted and what are your views on the project?

Fiori: Due diligence is a process that occurs in the private sector as well as municipalities. Excitement cannot blind us. Emotions are strong. They can sometimes make us act before we explore all avenues. A sports complex in Worcester County is a phenomenal idea. It is an opportunity for all children to have a first-class facility and give children that cannot afford to play travel sports the same opportunities as those who can. I am 100 percent for the sports complex, but not as it stands. Due diligence needs to be done. When I am looking at a commercial piece of property to invest in, I consider all the same factors that commissioners need to consider when spending taxpayers hard earned money. This is a basic list of central steps that were skipped: 1. How are we getting into the property? With Seahawk Road overcrowded and Flower Street being a residential local throughway creating a large commercial operation is irresponsible. We cannot throw hundreds of cars a day onto Flower Street. 2. Why do we need prime property at approximately $76,000 an acre when we can move a few miles down the road and purchase the same space for a third of the cost? 3. Where are we getting water and sewer? Have we asked Berlin town officials? Have we even considered talking to our neighbors which already struggle with traffic related issues in the town on a daily basis? 4. Stormwater implications. Where are we going to house, control and responsibly discharge the amount of storm water from such a massive facility?

As you can see there are many questions that still require answers. I would love to extend the contract date to answer the due diligence questions that were not addressed in the hasty decision to write such a massive property contract with taxpayer dollars. I would vote against until my list of questions were answered. A very expensive property that cannot be used for its intended use would not only be a tax burden for us, but for our children.

Gulyas: I would vote no. Not with taxpayer money. I’m for a sports complex. It cannot go in the selected spot. No access to Route 50. Flower Street access is off the table because I will not destroy a neighborhood with traffic using the “build it and they will come” theory. Approximately $75,000 per acre, for just under 100 acres? That’s ridiculous. Buy the farm that was once going to be the tech park northwest of Routes 50 and 113 – 450-plus acres for less than a third of the price of what they’re currently purchasing. I certainly hope this comes to referendum. The taxpayer should have a voice in this. Government should take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, courts, transportation services (including public transportation), public works (streets, sewers, snow removal, and so forth), and infrastructure. Keep government out of private business.

Kotwica: We cannot remain stagnant and unchanged. Being the only candidate on record to be for the sports complex at the SPA forum last month, this is for selfless reasons. Having no children of our own, but once being a child, we see this as a vast improvement to the area for the foreseeable future. After due diligence is completed, and operated by a sports complex professional organization, this venue could produce year round revenue to the area and create jobs that pay well. A more structured group of visitors, that spend money in our community to lower your tax basis.

One must consider some of the following: room tax revenue, restaurants sales tax revenue, a local sporting goods store, and revitalizing the shopping centers just north of the land. Lastly is something that many people may not consider. Worcester County will own the land. The future location of a new larger, modern Stephen Decatur High School could be owned outright, paid for by the participants, and not by the citizens of this county. Schooling is the largest part of the budget, and adding on that cost in the future could be astronomical. We all know the saying “Buy land, they are not making it anymore.” If the county were to look for land for a new school, sellers will take advantage of this process and sell at a much larger premium in the future. Smart strategic growth with the long-term vision for the county in mind.

VanVonno: I would have voted no. I see the positive aspects of the sports center but nothing was said about it for months and then they had a hearing and no questions were answered, and I worry about paying too much and no transparency or disclosures. There are also impacts to surrounding areas in Berlin and more discussion should’ve been given.

This should be given to the people to vote on such a large and controversial decision for the County. Looks like they passed a referendum with signatures to get it on the ballot and the people will decide.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.