Smith out, two newcomers in for Salisbury City Council election

Not only will Salisbury City Council have at least one opening for this election, but there will be a new president as well.

According to a published report, at a news conference earlier today Louise Smith declared she wouldn’t seek re-election to the Council seat she won last time around, in 2007. Add in the health issues Council vice-president Gary Comegys is facing, and it’s possible we could have a clean sweep in both Council leadership and a partial removal of a three-vote bloc which has at times stymied Mayor Jim Ireton and promoted what some consider a remnant ‘good old boy’ network dating back to the days of former Mayor Barrie Tilghman.

However, two new filees assured that city voters will eliminate at least one contender on March 1st. Orville Dryden Jr. and Michael Taylor have both placed their name on the ballot and join a significantly more crowded field as the filing deadline looms next week. With seven now signed up, the primary will be necessary to whittle the field to six contenders for the April 5th general election.

Beginning next week I’ll put together a short set of questions for each candidate to answer – for the first time in six years I’ll have a say in the proceedings. Better to be an informed voter.

‘Safe streets’ or unsafe for landlords?

I guess they are going to keep trying until they get it right.

Salisbury City Council members Debbie Campbell and Terry Cohen are hosting their third public meeting to solicit public comment on the ‘Safe Streets’ initiative at the Government Office Building in downtown Salisbury tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. Despite two packed previous hearings, the legislation is stalled in Salisbury City Council.

In a press release, Campbell and Cohen bill this Neighborhood Legislative Package as a public safety initiative:

“Just today, I discussed the “Three Strikes, You’re Out” proposal with a city resident and what reducing the high-repeat call load from certain properties can mean for making better use of our police resources,” said Cohen.  “It’s astounding when you see statistics like 59 properties in just one neighborhood generating 1,800 calls for service to police in three years.”

Campbell said that the previous two meetings, both with overflow attendance, yielded useful feedback on possible changes to the legislation.  “This legislation could provide substantial benefit to the public and contribute to the overall Safe Streets initiative already under way, thanks to our law enforcement agencies in partnership with the community,” Campbell explained.

In reading the seven portions of the proposed legislation, I fail to see how many of the new laws will reduce crime. It seems like much of the legislation instead is a broadbased effort to both wipe out many of what the city considers ‘nonconforming uses’ which have been around for years or even decades and in the process make a little bit more money in licensing fees and fines from landlords.

There’s no question there are landlords who don’t do their due diligence, instead succumbing to the allure of the almighty buck. Yet they are in the minority, and the proposed laws are akin to taking a sledgehammer to an ant hill. Those who live in houses adapted decades ago or who bought a property intending to become an entrepreneur and landlord may find themselves facing the prospect of extensive and expensive repairs if they can’t convince a judge that the use predates an arbitrary deadline. Obviously they will be stuck with a property which has lost its appeal and value to prospective buyers and face financial ruin.

Like it or not, Salisbury will be a rental haven for years to come due to a combination of a growing university where demand for housing outstrips on-campus availability and a crashing housing market which forces former homeowners to become renters. Soon the largest group of new homeowners may be financial institutions, and certainly they’re not going to be interested in following these regulations – instead, houses may sit empty and become tempting targets for crime. That defeats the purpose of the bill!

This bill, which is strongly backed by Mayor Jim Ireton, can’t move forward because Council President Louise Smith won’t put it on the Council’s legislative agenda for a vote. Likely this is because the bill as written has little chance of passage – Smith and fellow City Council members Gary Comegys and Shanie Shields seem to be immovably against the bill. With just one City Council meeting remaining on the docket this year, all are marking time until bill co-sponsor Terry Cohen (along with Smith and Comegys) have their seats come up for election next spring. After the holidays, the city’s campaign season will begin in earnest as the filing deadline is January 18.

While Cohen and Campbell may be trying a TEA Party-style tactic by holding frequent public meetings to denounce the lack of progress, the political reality is that this change isn’t desired by a large percentage of Salisbury residents. They want real, tangible answers for crime, and picking on landlords won’t make a difference in the perception that Salisbury is a drug and gang haven. It’s no wonder people flee to the county the first chance they get.

Bonds, beer, and other items of local interest

I don’t use them too often, but I am on the e-mail distribution list for press releases from Wicomico County. Jim Fineran was a busy guy today since I received two, and I thought both deserved a little bit of comment.

The first one I’ll ponder is “County Scores High Marks From Wall Street’s Annual Evaluation.” One bragging point generally made by County Executive Rick Pollitt is that the bond firms love our county because they believe it’s run on sound financial footing. Of course, it’s a good thing they believe this because otherwise we’d be paying interest out the wazoo once the bill for county capital projects comes due.

And Pollitt states this again here, with a little slap at Joe Ollinger in the process.

During the recent campaign, my challenger stated that the county’s strong fiscal grades from Wall Street were a result of the Revenue Cap. However, the agencies have made it clear that our success has actually come in spite of the Revenue Cap. The following is from Moody’s Report:


Wicomico County has maintained a healthy financial position during recent years despite the impact of property tax revenue constraints, supported by proactive management and conservative fiscal policies and practices. (Emphasis in original.)

Yes, the election is over and Rick is back to his complaining about the revenue cap. Tell Moody’s that they don’t get a vote on changing this and it’s doubtful the five or six GOP members of County Council (depending on the election’s final outcome) are going to see it any other way. Certainly one tug-of-war likely to result next year as the budget is discussed will be whether to make up for the shortage that Pollitt voluntarily took this year when he opted not to raise the property tax rate to the constant yield rate.

Anyone with half a brain realizes that running a county and performing legitimate functions of county government costs money – the question is and will continue to be just how much can those of us living in the county afford to give when the other branches of government ask for an increasing share and costs for everything else (like gasoline and groceries) continue to add up?

Pretty soon we won’t be able to afford beer or wine, which brings me to my second press release.

Even though it’s generally after the fact, I talk about the Autumn Wine Festival and made sure to mention its baby brother the Good Beer Festival quite a bit this year, too. Obviously the group I’m associated with uses the events for political purposes given their calendar date in the midst of campaign season but I’d like to see both thrive for other reasons as well.

So I was pleased to actually see some attendance and financial numbers from each this year, for the first time in my memory. And my guesses were actually pretty good on attendance.

I recall that the prediction made by Parks and Recreation for attendance at the Good Beer Festival was 2,000 for the weekend, but the nice weather Saturday made me sure they came pretty close to that number on just that day alone. Sure enough, the event drew 1,628 that day. I also thought the Sunday crowd was about half, and indeed Sunday drew 750. Overall, they exceeded expectations by nearly 20 percent – but still suffered a small loss financially (about $1 per person.) Hopefully, the event will get more vendors to help make up the difference because otherwise I thought it was well run – the department was “ecstatic” about its future so perhaps in October 2011 we can do it again!

As for the AWF, year 8 was great as they drew 4,651 patrons and made a profit of about $24,000, mostly on the strength of the number of vendors (ticket sales made about 1/4 of the profit.) So they are set to go after a couple tough years of weather. And given the fact the AWF is now “twice its original size” it seems the Good Beer Festival is also on track to become as successful.

One thing unaccounted for insofar as the financial numbers at the festival grounds is the impact of over 7,000 visitors. Granted, there is some percentage who are local but even if just five percent come from far enough away to merit an overnight stay that packs hundreds of hotel rooms and helps keep the restaurants and gas stations in business. Just on an anecdotal basis from working a booth I notice a lot of people come here from across the bay so even if it’s a day trip we’re bringing money to the local economy. These events do well for paying for themselves and I suspect with decent weather next year the GBF will move into the black.

Finally, I wanted to point one thing out about this ‘Third Friday’ video.

I find it interesting that this video is featured on the ‘jimiretonformayor’ Youtube channel. Is that kosher with Salisbury’s campaign finance laws? I think it’s a question worth asking so I’m going to.

Honestly, I don’t mind Jim Ireton taking the time to promote this event as part of his duties but under the auspices of a campaign Youtube site I think this could be considered an in-kind contribution by the person uploading the videos (one can ask who does that and whether that’s on city time too.) Perhaps the city of Salisbury needs its own Youtube channel which can be used for these sorts of announcements.

Since I’m the burr in the saddle to a lot of people in power, why not ask this question too?