Tonight, Julie Brewington was speaking to “my favorite people in the world.” I presume that comes after her family, but that was how she opened up the February meeting of Wicomico County’s Americans for Propsperity chapter.
Now that the group had a regular meeting date and location, over 60 attendees had the opportunity to hear a number of speakers in a briskly moving program. One thing the group wasn’t going to do, though, was send a bus to tomorrow’s Blair House meeting even though the national AFP was protesting at the site.
Yet, noted Julie, “if it weren’t for us, health care would’ve passed in June.” Our focus, though, was going to shift a bit to more local issues since “the only votes that matter are at the city, county, and state level” in 2010. “We have power in local issues,” added Julie later.
The two most immediate concerns were finding volunteers to attend city and county council meetings and helping to organize the Salisbury TEA Party April 15 – we need people with “organizational skills.”
The meeting was then turned over to a number of speakers, first up being Ed Urban representing the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center. He started right out by saying he approached the county years ago with the suggestion that these operations be run like a business and they put him in charge of doing so.
Deftly keeping the conversation away from the recent purchase of five acres to expand the Civic Center’s parking lot (better known to my readers as Pollitt’s Folly) Urban instead spoke about the economic impact the WYCC creates along with other aspects of the county’s tourism, parks, and recreation programs.
The tourism department combined with the Civic Center creates $20 million in “rollover” economic impact. The county’s tourism bureau is supported by a room tax of 6 percent, with 2/3 going to pay for tourism programs and 1/6 to help the WYCC. Parks and recreation essentially support themselves through user fees, with the only county fiscal input being that of paying for the administrators.
But Wicomico County still has to subsidize the Civic Center to the tune of around $227,000 a year (averaged over the last three years.) The Civic Center “can be profitable,” Urban stated, but in order to be so the prohibition on alcohol sales there would have to be lifted. He noted that the site was originally slated to be a ballpark for local children, but that was built elsewhere – yet the no-alcohol clause remained.
Urban concluded his remarks by finally addressing the parking issue, saying that the County Council saw the need for additional parking; the only question was cost. There are only 900 spaces on the Civic Center lot, and any event where more than 2,250 attend would require more space. The developers who owned the land the county bought were threatening to charge $10,000 per month rent. (I’d have called their bluff, figuring that $1.5 million is 150 months’ rent.)
I asked Urban about the lifespan of the arena, given that many similar facilities only last 40 to 50 years. Urban thought that with proper maintenance the design was such that it could last several more decades – he “doesn’t see a 40 to 50 year lifespan.”
Speaking for the opposition, County Councilman Joe Holloway then briefly recounted his reasoning for voting against the purchase. It was “not a wise choice” for a number of reasons; in particular he again criticized the county’s method of land acquisition. Joe also noted the real cost to taxpayers would be $2.6 million when improvements are figured in.
Holloway also warned us that “we’re in trouble” financially because of what’s brewing in Annapolis.
John Palmer, president of the local group VOICE, spoke next. After vowing that “we will be going down to the Civic Center” and analyzing their finances, he got to the root of his presentation. In polling the audience and soliciting what we thought key problems were, the consensus was that Wicomico County didn’t spend money wisely – “unnecessary personnel” and an out-of-control Board of Education seemed to get much of the blame.
We could vote the people in charge out, but that would involve getting good people elected and those are tough to find. Instead, the approach VOICE is taking is that of petitioning for redress – “if you take control of the checkbook I guarantee things will straighten out in the county,” Palmer asserted.
The group has two ideas it would like to bring to voters: one is a prohibition on land acquisition and capital projects without the approval of county voters, and the other is reducing the number on County Council from seven to five by eliminating the two at-large posts.
Personally I don’t care for either idea.
In considering the capital improvements proposal, it seems to me that we have a representative government for a reason. While the idea of a referendum for capital improvements seems excellent in the wake of Pollitt’s Folly, the truth is that this would cripple county government’s ability to act in a timely manner. In addition, there would be the expense of frequent elections to consider as the county buys land and improves property on a regular basis.
As far as the changeover from seven County Council members to five, I don’t see where we save all that much in that the duplicity of services we already have would still exist. Obviously there’s a small savings in salaries, but I prefer the idea of having three Council members at my beck and call (my district plus two at-large) rather than one. The chances of having someone who agrees with my point politically are exponentially better this way, although I admit that since Joe Holloway happens to be my district councilman I have a pretty good advocate of my point of view already.
Palmer’s second-in-command, Johnnie Miller, spoke next – but on a completely different subject. He updated us on legislation he and Palmer have authored called the “Green Watt Program.” Based on a program in Tuscon, Arizona, this voluntary program would create a fund to promote energy efficiency. Miller noted Delaware pays a much larger share of costs for renewable energy projects; up to $31,500 for residential and $250,000 for commercial.
But one commentor made the point about government subsidy, and I think it’s a valid point. While it’s Miller’s business to promote solar panels and the like, it’s obvious that people would likely go another route for energy usage if this subsidy in Delaware (where Miller does most of his business) didn’t exist. Obviously Johnnie means well with his proposal, but if this were done by General Electric or some other large corporation we’d call it rentseeking.
Nick Loffer, representing the state AFP, began his remarks by quoting Governor O’Malley from late 2007 – “we passed a fair, long term solution to our budget problems.” Uuuuhhh, no.
His time at the podium was spent alerting us to the fact that the hearing on the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act (BRFA for short – SB141 to the General Assembly) occurs Wednesday, March 3rd at noon and there would be a bus for those interested in attending the hearing or even testifying. (The bus would leave Salisbury around 9:30 a.m.)
“This is our chance to stop the budget,” opined Nick, otherwise, “a vote for this budget is a vote to raise taxes in 2011.”
Salisbury News blogger Joe Albero was next, and although I found his remarks may have been a bit self-serving he made some valid points. (Perhaps he underestimates the impact other blogs have on the conversation.)
One thing I found interesting – albeit anecdotal, of course – was his claim that Rick Pollitt said, “Joe, that will never happen” when asked if taxpayers would be paying for additional Civic Center parking at the Old Mall site. At the time, a land swap was discussed.
Having gone to Annapolis to watch testimony on sex offender legislation, Albero observed, “things are no different in Annapolis” than they are here. “I could do this (be a Delegate or local legislator),” Joe continued, but “I’m only one voice (out of many).” As commenters on his site, “we have an incredible impact on local government.”
“Things are turning around for the better,” said Joe, but we need to stay united. He relayed the fact that General Assembly Republicans had put up a budget alternative saving almost $830 million, including over $2 million just by putting a salary cap on state officials so none made more than the governor’s $150,000 salary.
The last of the slated speakers was Salisbury City Councilman Debbie Campbell, who told us “really important things were going on” in Salisbury. Mainly she decried a lack of accountability on the part of the city, and spoke of two egregious examples.
The city of Salisbury has accepted a dump truck and is using it – unfortunately they haven’t officially allocated the money to pay for it yet. And if that’s not bad enough, the Council president contracted for and signed two change orders for a $1.8 million housing project called “The Bricks” by claiming City Council approval when she had none, charged Campbell.
In all, said Debbie, the Council was “running roughshod” over taxpaying citizens, and she begged those attending, “please show up and support us.” Joe Collins later intoned that, “we’re lucky to have Debbie Campbell” on Salisbury’s City Council and as an AFP supporter.
Returning to the podium, Julie Brewington talked briefly about the issue of infiltration – the TEA Party movement was so successful that the opposition isn’t ignoring it anymore but trying to destroy it from within. She mentioned the ersatz Tea Party in Nevada, which gave me the opportunity to enlighten the group on the particulars of the situation.
Another observer, S.J. Disharoon, spoke about the lack of dialogue at Salisbury City Council meetings and thought we as a group should press for a rules change to allow more opportunity for the public to interact in a timely manner, not just after all is said and done.
G.A. Harrison related his recent experience with the GOP Central Committee regarding something he found offensive and told those gathered a Republican “has to earn your vote…Conservatives need to take back the GOP.” I agree!
Finally, Bob Harris brought up the two ways a referendum can get on the ballot – either by petition or by vote of the County Council. He encouraged the County Council (since Joe Holloway was still present) to put two items on the ballot – one for disclosure of members of a LLC which does business with the county and the other to start the process of getting an elected school board, to which Joe Holloway replied he “fully supports” an elected board of education too.
These meetings generally turn out to be rather long and a lot is said. But they’re really worth the time to cover because I feel that most of my readership has been crying for leadership on these and other issues and the AFP is attempting to provide it on a nonpartisan basis.