Today is primary Election Day in Salisbury, so I thought it would be appropriate at this time to reveal the answers to questions I posed a few weeks back in this space. But I have to be quite frank and tell you I’m disappointed in the lack of response I received as a potential constituent of these lawmakers. Out of those who received these questions in an e-mail I only received one set of answers back, from Jake Day. Cynthia Polk also responded, but did not directly answer the questions – instead she referred me to her website and literature. Sorry, I don’t answer the questions for others – no one is interviewing me.
Since I would rate Jake’s chance of advancement after today as relatively good, keep this handy for the general election April 2.
monoblogue: From personal experience, I can tell you the building industry has been decimated in Salisbury. We’ve had a few opportunities to redevelop various properties in the city but nothing has come to fruition. While I’d prefer private investment, the question really is how do we get people building again?
Day: First of all, you’re right. The building industry has been decimated. It will come back, though. The question is: will it come back in the City or its periphery? This has more to do with what kind of place the City is to do business. I propose dramatically changing the way government presents itself to citizens, investors and businesses. First of all, each department should develop and deliver to the Mayor and Council a ‘Business Friendly Action Plan’ to better improve customer service. This has been accomplished in many cities with a profound effect on culture in the government. Second, the City should physically present itself as open for business by opening a storefront downtown Development Office. Donations and grants should fund the space and the staff should simply consist of a rotating representative from each of the following departments: Neighborhood Services, Public Works and Planning & Zoning. This space would be a ‘first stop’ for anyone wanting to build/renovate in Salisbury. The express objective of the office would be customer service; to help shepherd people through the development and permitting process. Third, the City must create a cheerleader and a foreman for economic development projects. I am not a proponent of growing our government (and think we can work with the County over time to shrink it), but I propose in this instance that we create an Economic Development Officer position and recruit a person from the business community to become the dedicated City recruiter/cheerleader for business development and expansion. Fourth, the Mayor and Council should host a quarterly Real Estate Breakfast, simply to build relationships and determine ways to reduce barriers to investment. Fifth, the City should convene an informal discussion group of local banks to determine what the City can do to free up capital for investment. Sixth, the City must reduce economic barriers to investment. The first thing the City can do is to reduce the high cost of land by surplusing downtown City parking lots. The second task is to reduce the cost of connecting to water and sewer services by creating a bank of EDU credits downtown and in other high-priority areas. Third, impact fees should be related to economic activity. While building is down, impact fees should be kept low and no new impact fees should be approved. Seventh, we must lobby the County to eliminate (phase out) the inventory tax. This is a barrier to investment and building in the manufacturing/industrial sectors. I see that our County Council has already begun to discuss this action. Eighth, we should provide tax credits to those who improve their land in the City (especially commercial and mixed-use development) by phasing in property taxes on improvements. There are many other programs and incentives I believe can be offered to increase building activity, including: Small Business Incubator + Startup Space Locator.
monoblogue: And speaking of building, we hear a lot about how to redevelop downtown. But the city is far more than just downtown; neighborhoods are important as well. If you were to assign a percentage of importance that redeveloping downtown merits when compared to the overall picture, what would it be and why?
Day: It is impossible to assign a percentage of importance to downtown; the various measures we could use – population, assessable tax base, commercial sales – are all inadequate to paint a picture. As a mixed-use (but largely commercial) district, it is very important. That said, its importance is derived from the fact that it is the geographic center and the historic hub of our City. I can tell you that no City in America has thrived while turning its back on its downtown. It isn’t just the dogma of New Urbanists or city planners – it’s an economic fact. Increased density of economic activity has an ever-increasing multiplying effect and decreases the cost of building and operating public infrastructure. With regard to the business of the City, property taxes per acre are dramatically increased in downtown and denser areas (especially when the starting point is $0). More importantly, jobs, residents and economic activity per acre are all dramatically increased. All of this leads to the long-term ability of a government to function sustainable with minimal interference with private development and minimal (and hopefully diminishing) tax burden. So, my plan for downtown is to a) link it (reduce barriers) to other neighborhoods so that commerce can happen more freely between them; b) reduce barriers to investment (cost of land and water/sewer connection); c) create design guidelines and other tools that architects and developers can use to create more beautiful buildings; d) get the City out of the business of squatting on valuable land that could be developed by private interests. (Rather than keeping land at its lowest and worst use, the City should seek the highest and best on the property that any owner/developer in real estate would seek); and e) seek the long-term goal of opening up the plaza with a more open design, clearly delineating traffic lanes while maintaining a safe pedestrian experience, just like 95% of pedestrian plazas in the US did 20 years ago when they saw what economic failures they were.
monoblogue: In the last few years we’ve seen a number of national chain businesses open in Salisbury; some examples are Hobby Lobby, Longhorn Steak House, Party City, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Yet there’s always been a group talking about “shop local” even if it means less selection at a higher price. What are your thoughts on the local vs. chain controversy?
Day: I don’t think this is really a controversy. The argument for “shopping local” is that dollars spent at local businesses and jobs created by local business have a higher multiplier effect for economic activity. Of $100 spent at local independent stores another $45 of secondary local spending was generated, compared to $14 for a big-box chain store. Additionally, 65% of new jobs created in the past 17 were by small businesses – not all retail, but inherently rooted in community. As a Commissioner on our City/County Planning Commission I have voted in favor of many of these national chain businesses (Longhorn Steak House, Dunkin Donuts, Party City, Ulta Beauty, Men’s Wearhouse, Dairy Queen, Buffalo Wild Wings to name a few). I don’t think our desire for local businesses to succeed has to come at the expense of our community’s openness to outside investors. However, we must emphasize through marketing and other tools the importance of those local businesses. Those are the investors that will stay for generations. The evidence is there: look at the Knorr brothers, Pete Roskovich, the Hanna family and Rob Mulford.
monoblogue: We’ve already heard the contention about crime statistics in this campaign. Do you think the police department has the optimum amount of resources and manpower?
Day: Absolutely not. In conversations with our State’s Attorney’s office and the Police Department I have learned in no uncertain terms that the relationship between our ability to keep cutting crime and the resources of our Police Department are proportional. We need more officers and when we have more officers we can then re-establish the Safe Streets team, give the Criminal Investigations Division the staff it needs and then determine what other tools our department needs to be the first rate unit it should be. We must seek federal and state funding for more officers.
monoblogue: So where will we get the funding to pay for them?
Day: Fair question and the right answer is challenging to find. I believe that a 1-year extension in the cycle of vehicle replacement can afford at least one new officer’s salary in a sustainable fashion, but I am told that the true deficiency is in the dozens of officers. I would rely on Chief Duncan and the Mayor to assess the precise needs for the Council, but believe the sources are likely going to be from federal and state coffers. In the 1990’s the Federal government recognized the national shortage in officers and invested in putting new officers on the street. Barring another revolution in thinking, we need to vigorously pursue and make a case for the new officers we need from the USDOJ COPS program, Maryland’s Safe Streets (GOCCP) grants and from private foundations.
monoblogue: The subject of annexation came up at a recent forum. In my (admittedly limited) experience with the topic, my recollection is that extending city services comes with the requirement of being annexed into the city. Yet we also want to avoid the “pipestem” annexations which have given the city a very irregular shape. What incentives would you recommend to “fill in” the city’s footprint and eliminate pockets of non-incorporated land surrounded by the city?
Day: Great question. While this is not as urgent an issue as others you’ve asked about – the City does need to clarify its borders. Ultimately, it is most economically sustainable and environmentally sustainable to build infrastructure and structures in a compact way. We can do that without building like we live on Manhattan Island. That said, when we’re building, it should be on shared utilities, like City water and sewer services. That is the ideal. In developed areas adjacent to the City, we should begin a dialogue with property owners about what would incentivize incorporation into the City. Obviously, some incentives could include a reduced or phased tax burden with additional services provided (like waste collection). That said, there are likely additional incentives (representation and tax differentiation) that could be considered. If we are going to make headway in this area – we must begin conversations. Community workshops should be held around the region to discuss the relationship between service duplication, boundary resolution, tax differential and increasing incentive to live in the City. The City cannot and must not approach this issue as a City issue – it is inherently a regional one and one that will only find resolution by listening to and providing benefits for residents and business owners outside of the City’s confusing boundaries.
monoblogue: More and more, the state of Maryland is dictating how local governments operate: to me, a prime example is the Tier Map demanded from counties thanks to last year’s Septic Bill. How much interference are you willing to tolerate in city affairs from bureaucrats in Annapolis?
Day: Well, on this particular issue you reference (Tier Map) it has absolutely no effect on the City of Salisbury. 100% of the City and its growth areas are in Tier 1 and 2 and will be no matter what. That’s good news for the City. I think to get what we want from the State without losing what control we want to maintain, we must build relationships. I presume that that happens at the Mayoral level, but I know it is limited at the Council level. Only one Council member attends a majority of State and peer-municipality group events. I think we must lobby our Delegates, Senators and State officials to give us the space to determine our own destiny while giving us the resources to achieve that success. That will take relationship building.
monoblogue: As a follow-up, do you see yourself as an activist for the city at the state level or will you just concentrate on what you believe you can control within the city limits?
Day: Absolutely. We must all be advocates at the County, State, Federal (and beyond) levels to grow Salisbury’s resources and investors and to ensure we have a policy context within which to operate that sets Salisbury up for success. To ignore the role that outside investors and higher levels of government have in influencing Salisbury is to do so at our own peril. I have relationships in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, Maryland Department of Planning, Wicomico County and advisors nationwide and globally in the realm of development and design. I would absolutely work every day to put Salisbury and its needs on their radar.
monoblogue: City finances are always in a state of flux, and one bad revenue year can mean drastic cuts the next. But let’s say your economic plans are a success and the city is suddenly flush with cash. What do you do with the surplus?
Day: First of all, I would take a look at our budget to make sure we weren’t collecting more than we needed to conduct the business of the City. Second of all, I would ensure that our surplus is invested in an operating reserve of 10% of annual general fund operating expenses. This is a standard adopted by many communities. Once this reserve is met (and maintained year-on-year), I would first invest in public safety: police officers and fire infrastructure (see FY13-FY16 CIP).
monoblogue: Finally, we hear a lot about transparency in government and communications with the citizens. I know one candidate is a member of the “new media,” for better or worse. But how would you use technology to assist in creating a more informed citizenry?
Day: I love this question. First of all, I would enlist a volunteer Digital Team to help identify how to make the city’s web site a better hub for two-way communication with citizens and visitors. Second, I would shift the city’s antiquated domain (currently at http://www.ci.salisbury.md.us) to http://salisbury.md. In fact, I’ve already purchased the domain and I will (regardless of the outcome of the election) donate it to the City after the election. Third, I would encourage the Mayor and other council members to join me in blogging about City issues on the web site. This would have to be a space free of political grandstanding, but open to reflection and sharing about very specific constituent needs and City projects. Lastly, I believe we should (like Chestertown and Cambridge) have a public WiFi network downtown. We need to be – and can be – leading the way on accessibility and transparency.
Will these answers and his campaign at large be enough to push him into the final showdown with either Debbie Campbell or Jack Heath? We’ll likely know that answer before 11:00 tonight as voting proceeds all across Salisbury.