County Commission President Looks Ahead With Optimism

SNOW HILL – While local officials remain committed to ongoing projects such as expanding broadband and developing a fire funding formula, the coming year is expected to bring additional challenges to Worcester County.

Inflation, implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future and a change in administration at the state level are all issues that could impact Worcester County. Nevertheless, Commissioner Chip Bertino, the newly elected president of the board, sees reasons to feel positive as 2023 approaches.

“I think we can be optimistic we have two new energetic, engaged county commissioners bringing a fresh perspective to government,” he said. “I believe we are a well-managed county with good leadership in terms of the chief administrative officer and deputy. I’m very pleased we have the people in place that we do.”

In an interview this week, Bertino, who is in his third term as commissioner and was elected earlier this month to serve as president, outlined the key issues he sees facing Worcester County in 2023. He said it was hard to predict what the change in administration at the state level, as Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is replaced by Democrat Wes Moore, would mean for Worcester.

“We also have a state legislature leaning toward the progressive side with the election of several new delegates and senators,” he said. “A well-managed county such as ours has to be mindful a change in Annapolis could really impact us as far as unfunded mandates and regulation changes. It’s an unknown.”

Legislation already passed that officials know will bring challenges to Worcester County is the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The sweeping education reform measures included in the bill are meant to improve and enhance public education in Maryland. The 10-year education plan focuses on five areas — high quality diverse teachers, career and technical education, career and college readiness, early childhood education and resources to ensure all students are successful. Key initiatives listed on the Maryland State Department of Education website include the implementation of a program of study for students who have not met college and career readiness standards by the end of 10th grade as well as a new career ladder system and a requirement the minimum teacher salary must soon be $60,000.

Bertino said Worcester County Public Schools officials would be focused on implementing the required changes but pointed out that the cost of the changes would primarily be borne by Worcester County.

“We provide and allocate a large part — over 80% — of the budget,” he said.

While the changes will be phased in over the next several years, Bertino said officials had to start laying out implementation plans now.

“We’re in a good position because of our close working relationship with the board of education,” he said.

As for county government, Bertino said an area that could see changes is the Worcester County Department of Development Review and Permitting.

“We have work to do in planning and zoning in ensuring our processes are customer oriented, that we’re working on behalf of the people that we represent, but at the same time maintain the aesthetic that makes Worcester County unique,” he said.

In addition, the county’s support of efforts to expand the public’s access to broadband are expected to continue. Bertino said he’s hopeful that work could even be complete this time next year.

“We are making good progress but more needs to be made,” he said.

Another ongoing initiative for Worcester County is the development of a long-term funding solution for fire and EMS services. In addition to increasing annual grants to fire companies and allocating $1.5 million in ARPA funds for their capital needs, the commissioners created a committee in early 2021 to tackle the problem of funding, as fire companies have been struggling in recent years to find funds to cover the services they provide. There are 10 fire companies of varying sizes and needs throughout Worcester County. The county’s committee consists of leadership from those companies as well as some county staff members and county commissioners.

“From its implementation, we recognized this had a long horizon because there’s a lot of issues we need to work through,” Bertino said. “This’ll be an ongoing effort just because of the dynamics.”

Despite the potential hurdles expected in the coming year, Bertino said he is confident in county staff. He noted that amid rising costs tied to inflation and supply chain issues, employees were finding ways to ensure operational needs were still met. The new procurement officer hired in August has also been successful identifying savings in the county’s more than $200 million budget.

“He is doing an outstanding job with our bidding process,” Bertino said. “So far, he’s saved us half a million dollars. He has really hit the ground running and demonstrated that we have opportunities for savings because of the volume we do.”

Bertino is also excited about the addition of two new commissioners to the board. Pocomoke resident Caryn Abbott now represents District 1 while Eric Fiori now represents District 3.

“They really are energized in ways I think will be positive for the county moving forward,” he said. “They ask questions. They do their homework. It leads to better discussion.”

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.