Despite a flurry of objections, the Wicomico County Council on Tuesday voted to allocate an initial $212,000 for free tuition to Wor-Wic instead of the entire $265,000 the college will eventually receive.
The supplemental appropriation was made after the annual household income limit for eligible students was lowered to $75,000.
Also, Wor-Wic President Ray Hoy said it is likely some of the 111 applicants will qualify for federal Pell Grants and other financial aid, reducing the amount the county has to pay.
That means the County Council officials will ask County Executive Bob Culver to have the Community Foundation return $53,000.
But Culver, speaking to the Salisbury Independent Tuesday, had strong words for changes the council made.
“Because the County Council’s final approval of the program occurred after graduating seniors had completed the school year, the number of students who were able to participate in the program has been diminished from what was originally projected in February when (Dr. Hoy) first presented the program,” Culver said.
“In addition, the County Council’s move to lower the household income level eligibility by 50 percent also had a downward effect. For those reasons, Wor-Wic officials now believe that $212,000 will sustain the program for the upcoming school year.
“However, the clear intent of establishing this fund at the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore was to create a sustainable fund and attract private investment. This was all discussed in great detail over a period of six months,” Culver said.
While Council members have the right to control the money, Culver has maintained their first vote was sufficient for him to disperse the check for the entire $265,000. He has the backing of his lawyer, attorney Paul Wilber while the Council’s lawyer, Attorney Ed Baker, supports the council’s position.
Kilmer adamantly disagreed with Culver transferring the money to the Community Foundation before talking to the Council.
“It is clear in the charter. At one time the executive did request it but it seems like he thinks he can do it on his own. It seems like a violation of the charter,” Kilmer said.
“Money has been transferred already. People are counting on it. Nothing we do here will stop the scholarship fund, but I have a lot of heartburn about the way it was implemented,” he said.
“There is community support. The children who apply for it should not be caught up in this sort of thing … but there is serious concern among some council members about what the executive has done,” Kilmer said.
Culver called Kilmer’s comments “reckless and without foundation.”
“He is not an attorney, CPA, or a financial auditor. His consistent attempts to undermine the scholarship program when he is the County Council’s liaison to Wor-Wic Community College Board of Trustees is truly unfortunate.
“The County’s Acting Attorney, Paul Wilber, its independent financial auditors at PKS and the director of finance, who holds a CPA, have all advised that the process was within the law and proper,” Culver said.
“The Wicomico Economic Impact Scholarship is going to change lives in Wicomico County and I am grateful for the support of so many in this community to help make it happen,” Culver added.
Disagreeing with the Council decision at the meeting Tuesday was Councilman John Hall, who said the council should stay out of how the money is allocated and trust Wor-Wic officials with that responsibility. The $265,000 originally approved should have been presented, with no change.
By the time council members approve the next fiscal year budget, Wor-Wic will already have finished a full semester. “We haven’t considered that … they can’t count on the Council. It takes away their incentive,” he said.
“The $265,000 was scholarships. That should be the end of it. If there’s money left, we’ll deal with that next year,” Hall said.
Agreeing, Councilman Matt Holloway said it’s “ridiculous that the council would take back a check presented to a foundation.”
“I don’t see the point in any of this. We’ve made the commitment,” Holloway said.
But Kilmer countered that the County Council, in February or March, will meet again to discuss appropriations, a remark that Hall described as “micromanaging.”
Eligibility depending on a family’s annual income should also be decided by Wor-Wic officials, Hall said.
Disagreeing, Cannon said the legislative form of government has a responsibility to taxpayers, and is not micromanaging. “All we’re really doing is our due diligence,” Cannon said.
Councilman Joe Holloway said regardless of what the council decided, the money has essentially been spent.
Cannon said the council’s mission on Tuesday was simply to “codify” and be sure specific language was in place. But Holloway said financial decisions should have been made before money was released.
Cannon reasoned a “lot of hiccups in the process” are to be expected the first year, but Kilmer said if as much planning had gone into paying attention to the county charter “and doing things correctly” as went into the press conference to announce free tuition for Wor-Wic students, “we wouldn’t have this problem.”
Councilman Joe Holloway asked if the council will send a letter to the Community Foundation, the organization being trusted to hold and disburse funds, directing $53,000 to be returned.
“If they refuse to send money back, what action does the council have? “What happens if it’s not returned?” Holloway asked.
Kilmer said the Community Foundation staff should be commended for cooperation and changes made by the Council “not be a reflection on the Community Foundation.”
Council members decided to send the letter to Culver instead of the Community Foundation, asking that that a portion of the money be returned.
Hall suggested increasing the annual household income of students who are eligible from $75,000 to $95,000.
“Wouldn’t that fall under micromanaging?” a smiling Councilman Kilmer asked him.
In June, a plan approved by Council will cover tuition and fees for county residents enrolled in a degree or certificate program at Wor-Wic.
Students must apply for and accept all other financial aid and register for 12 or more credit hours in the fall immediately after high school graduation, and their family’s annual income must be $75,000 or less.
Once they are enrolled, students are required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, attend full time and earn at least 24 credit hours each academic year.
Reach Susan Canfora at email@example.com.