This morning County Executive Richard Pollitt gave a speech the County Charter dictates he give annually, the State of the County address.
In a departure from tradition, he had ordered that the curtains of the Council chamber in the Government Office Building be opened up, and despite the dry rot he claimed the curtains had from being closed so long the reflected sunshine shone into the chamber. It was to symbolize the “sunshine nature” of county government, which he wanted to portray as a “glass house” to take the mystery out of county affairs.
After a nod to PAC-14 (the local public access channel) and their live broadcast of the event, Pollitt commented on the pending reorganization of the channel, asking citizens to “let the county government know how you feel about this asset.” It was among a number of topics Pollitt covered in the address, which lasted less than a half-hour.
While the County Executive praised the “strong sense of community” in Wicomico County as a blessing, he also cautioned that we faced challenges greater than we’ve seen in our lifetimes. And no longer can the excuse of changing over to the strong executive form of government be used; Pollitt termed that this “transition is complete.” Instead, the time of adjustment needed to be converted to a time of action, something he opined was “well underway.”
For 2009, Richard’s goal was to restore confidence in our county government, which had been shaken by previous profligate spending. That spending led to the adoption of a revenue cap earlier this decade. But, he noted, our fiscal success since has been “remarkable”, with Standard & Poor’s recently bolstering Wicomico County’s financial rating from A+ to AA-. Further, a conservative budget allowed the county to not yet require some of the cuts that other governmental entities were being forced to make.
Other successes Pollitt pointed to were the upgrading of the Wicomico Housing Authority from “troubled” to “standard”, the rating of the county’s nursing homes as 4 stars of 5, both marinas being assessed as “environmentally friendly” by the state of Maryland, a $1 million grant from the state to acquire conservation easements, and America’s Promise once again selecting Salisbury as a Top 100 city to raise children in, for the third year in a row.
The County Executive noted at the top there would be challenges, though, and 2009 promised to be a trying year due to the difficult economy and the constraints of the revenue cap. After all, Pollitt said, the county was not spending “just for the fun of it.” Items that we wanted already cost a lot of money, and would cost more in the future.
With property tax revenues in a “steep decline” – county residents now pay the same assessed rate as they did in 1991, Richard claimed – it amounted to a decline which “cost us $8 million.” At this point, Pollitt continued, we need to “take stock of (our) quality of life” and make the tough decisions about where to cut the budget. In short, because of the revenue cap, Pollitt insisted that we had to decide what services we want and how to pay for them. His suggestion was to either adopt a tax rate cap or higher revenue cap.
Nor would the state provide much in the way of help, as Richard insinuated that those in Annapolis would be less likely to assist a county which had a revenue cap in place. We had to “come to grips with the burden on our back.”
Another challenge Pollitt pointed to was how to manage growth. One goal was to control sprawl by removing the pressure on landowners to develop their land through compensating them now in exchange for placing their property off-limits to future development. But, he warned, the county shouldn’t adopt regulations that “take something important or personal from (the people).” He mentioned that, next to taxation, the greatest impact government had on the citizenry was regulating their homes and property.
Looking back to an event which grabbed local headlines in 2008, the County Executive admitted that a promised report on the theft of items from the county landfill was still in progress, but was expected to be completed early next year. Many of the steps suggested by an outside auditor had been undertaken though. As for the resolution of the criminal cases, Richard conceded that he was disappointed in the light sentences handed down to the offenders, but warned that those on the county payroll who steal from the public till “will be fired.”
Looking ahead to 2009, Pollitt anticipated the “almost complete” report from the Civic Center Committee, and announced the formation of a Council for Physical Fitness, with local resident and onetime Green Bay Packer and Washington Senator baseball player Tom Brown as the titular head of the effort. As part of this effort, Richard was going to work on trimming some of his own excess – just like millions of other Americans, the onset of 2009 will be time for Pollitt to get in shape.
While I applaud Richard for his desire to trim his waistline, I’m not as enthused about his wish to raise or remove the revenue cap.
That $8 million “cost” to the county reflected in Pollitt’s remarks is money that wasn’t drawn from the wallets of county property owners. And with our housing market in the tank, anything that can help sales such as a relatively low tax rate is advantageous. (The sales also bolster the transfer tax revenue.)
It also occurred to me that Pollitt ran on a promise to prioritize the budget. Sure enough, from the monoblogue archives of October 13, 2006:
(Pollitt said) that he “would do better by fire companies” in the budget but the budget had to be prioritized. In fact, Pollitt claimed that each year he started the Fruitland city budget from scratch and built it as a whole (rather than the federal style of baseline budgeting.) Pollitt advocated a “climate of thrift and economy” with incentives for department heads to save money.
A week later, I added on this post:
One comment on his literature reads that within the first year of a Pollitt administration, he will begin to “(p)repare a budget that provides the most bang for the buck within the limits of our funding resources while acknowledging that there will be serious needs under-funded until our community finds the will to fill them.” (emphasis mine.) I can’t say that this statement advocates less intrusive government as getting the additional funding resources almost always means John Q. Public has to dig deeper into his pockets.
While the literature comes from 2006, the term he was elected to is four years and he’ll have to deal with the financial hand he’s dealt.
Another item I happened to receive from attending the event was a full-color 12-page county report with an insert depicting the General Fund revenues and expenses from FY2008. As it turns out, education far outstrips the remainder of the General Fund budget and now, in FY2009, comprises over half of expenditures. Obviously some portions of that educational budget need to be trimmed for FY2010 if revenue is faltering. That’s one possible solution; certainly other cuts can be made far from the public’s eye. Perhaps the “economic summit” Pollitt is planning to kick off his citizens’ advisory panel for the county’s financial health can also comb through the budget.
With that, let me throw something else into the hopper. One other item that has come up on the state level (albeit unsuccessfully) and should be looked into on a local level is what’s been actually achieved by the number of commissions, boards, and other entities which have been created under both Pollitt’s watch and by previous County Councils when they ran the affairs of Wicomico County as a body. My point on this is, while the idea of a citizens’ advisory panel for fiscal affairs or a Council for Physical Fitness has some merit, I fear that they may go the way of another good idea gone bad, the Wicomico Neighborhood Congress. There will definitely be a need for strict limits on the power and function of these new bodies, lest they begin (using the physical fitness one as an example) to push for new fitness-related sources of revenue like a “fat tax” or additional expenditures such as money for bike paths rather than maintaining county roads.
As it is with practically all localities at this point in time, the State of the County could use some improvement. Rather than pine about what could be if the revenue were available, we need to set our priorities and fund them as best we can, keeping in mind that the more money left in the hands of the private sector, the faster the recovery here and nationwide will be. That will make the State of our County strong in the long run.