Bob Culver Q&A: ‘We’re making a positive change’

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Nearly seven months on the job, his first budget process under his belt, some new department heads in place and the prospect of an economic uptick on the financial highway ahead, Bob Culver appears eager to expand his influence sphere across Wicomico County.

The county’s power change has gone much smoother than many people might have expected, apart from some unforeseen disputes with the county’s school board and education administrators (chagrined schools officials — and even some County Council members — brushed aside his ideas on West Salisbury Elementary’s renovation and Bennett Middle School’s demolition).

Even county workers’ vocal concerns over possible alterations to their employee handbooks seem to have faded, and a donnybrook with Salisbury’s mayor over fire funding quickly moved from the boxing ring to the negotiation table.

At 62, most men might be looking to slow down and plan for their retirement years. Culver, however, boasts a seven-day work schedule that he readily admits to enjoy. The late-night calls from department heads and constituents, the weekend community events whose participants appreciate the county leader’s attendance, the hours spent trying to decipher complicated issues and figuring out whose advice to follow — to all of these things, Culver declares: “Bring it on.”

During last fall’s campaign, candidate Culver seemed to have answers for every issue and ran with an air of confidence that voters seemed to embrace.

In interviewing Culver in his third-floor office in the Government Office Building, a slight change in persona could be detected.

One gets the impression that the job of County Executive might be harder than he expected, but it’s also pretty obvious that he enjoys his position of power and has the energy to pursue his ideals.

Q. How’s the job?

A. It’s good. I love this job. I get her every morning at 10 minutes to 7 or so and that gives me the chance to go through papers and figure out what’s going on

I really enjoy it. I feel like we’re making a positive change. Everywhere we go, we get a lot of positive comments and that means a lot.

People feel like they’re being listened to. People feel like I have a knowledge, that I have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on. I like that. It’s going good.

Q. I’ve always thought this is a job that you can do all different ways. A County Executive can ride around and cut ribbons or be a sleeves-rolled-up, working-on-the-details type. Which are you?

A. I’m definitely hands on. I will always be a hands-on leader. That’s why I love to come in here at 7 o’clock

The staff and I meet every morning at 8. I meet every week with the department heads, either here in the more-formal setting, or in their location. I go to Roads, the Landfill — they’re our largest employers, largest departments. I go there regularly — a couple times a week to see what’s going on.

I want to know what questions they have and see what I can do to make things easier for them.

Q. It seemed like in the beginning that you had some proposals and they were not exactly embraced, and it seemed like you got your feelings hurt a little bit.

A. Not really. No. I’ve got tough enough skin to deal with it.

The frustrating part was I guess I was too late to make the changes that I needed to make, whether it be on West Salisbury, whether it be on the Bennett Middle repurposing  — that’s frustrating.

That cost Wicomico County residents — just the Bennett Middle repurposing — millions of dollars, and I hate to see money wasted. I’m very frugal when it comes to money being spent. I want to get the most bang for my buck.

Q. I think we were both sort of stunned when the school board announced it was moving the Central Offices to rented space in a business park.

A. Are you really surprised? Seriously?

Q. Well, it didn’t seem like they had telegraphed their intentions, certainly not to the public. I was surprised, yes.

A. Let me tell you: They have been the most deceitful group of people to work with, that I have ever worked with.

You can quote that!

I’ll be honest with you: They say one thing and do another.

We had a meeting the other day with the school board commission, and they were saying they only have $250,000 set aside for asbestos remediation (on the old offices). On a building that size, that’s very little money.

In the meeting I asked: “All I’ve heard since I’ve been on the council is that the asbestos is falling out of the ceiling and people are going to get cancer.” Brian Foret the school system’s Facilities Manager) actually looked at me and said: “You can’t believe everything you hear, Bob.”

And I said, “Brian why are you doing this now?” This new lease they’ve got, they keep advertising that it’s such a good deal because it’s only $8.49 a square foot. It’s a triple-net lease. That doesn’t include CAM (Common Area Maintenance).

Their basic rent will be around $320,000 a year. You have to add taxes to that, you have to add maintenance to that — I’ll bet you it will end up being a half-a-million-dollars a year.

Be honest! Tell the people what we’ve got going on! If you’re honest with the people — even if they don’t agree with you — they’ll respect you. And they’ll trust you the next time that you tell them something.

Q. Is it one of those things where the BOE doesn’t trust you, so they don’t involve you, or is it something where they’re going to do their own thing their own way?

A. I don’t think it’s me personally. I think it’s the position (they hold) — they have to be in control of the money that we give to them.

We give them a certain amount of money, and they decide what to do with it. It’s like what you’re seeing now in Worcester County. We (the county government) don’t determine how big a raise to give teachers. But (the school board) wants to throw it back on the county — “they didn’t give us enough money.”

Worcester’s teachers are all getting new laptops, Macs. That expensive, but the school board could put that in their expenses. So what do you want? — raises for teachers or do you want everyone to have a computer?

Anyway, there’s a lot of back and forth ….

I would rather have seen us add on to the current location of the Board of Ed. That building has always been there. There are 13 acres that go with the Board of Education and all the land that goes with Wi-Hi. You can add a lot (of space) on for $6 million or $7 million .

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Q. One of the things that schools proponents pick at you for is that you won’t embrace the idea that the county government and the school board should be like family, and we’re all in this together. It feels very divisive, especially given what you’re saying.

A. It is very divisive.

Q. So is there anyway to heal that? Are you saying that from their conduct, it’s going to difficult to heal?

A. No, no. Not at all.

I look forward to my monthly meetings  with them. We sit down once a month, which has never been done before. We may not agree, but we come out of there having discussed a lot of things.

Dr. (John) Fredericksen and I have had several coffees together, and I enjoy those, but we come at things from opposite ends.

I’m representing 100,000 people and I take that job very seriously. I’m watching their (the BOE’s) money, trying to do what I can to help them get what they need to get qualified teachers. I’m also watching the schools (buildings).

West Salisbury, let’s take that up again. West Salisbury … tell me how we have two schools — West Salisbury and Glenn Avenue — that are identical (in design and construction) yet the West Salisbury people feel like we have shortchanged them.

But we’ve remodeled (Glenn Avenue). We didn’t look at (remodeling) West Salisbury, because it wasn’t the squeaky wheel at the time. But now it is — so we’re going to throw money at it?

Let’s keep what we have and keep it in good shape.

(On the office rental), I saw in the newspaper where they (school administrators) said: “Yes, they told the executive’s office about the building.” Well, they told me in bits — drips and drabs.

They’re almost like children. They’ll tell you “yeah I walked home, but I didn’t tell you I walked through the mud puddle, but I did.”

It’s just frustrating to me.

Q. What’s going on with the Recreation, Parks & Tourism director’s position, following Gary Mackes’ departure?

A. Andy Wisk in there in an acting director’s position.

I wasn’t sure where to go with Andy when I first came in, after Gary (Mackes) retired, I wasn’t really sure. I needed to watch and learn from the outside; I find that to be prudent, good management.

So (Andy’s) the acting director, with the understanding that if he handles it well it will work out. That’s a big business, it really is a big business. You look at Gary and you look at John Terrell, they grew up in it and they planned everything out. But if you bring in someone from the outside, there’s a lot to that business that you don’t know about.

That job directs Tourism, Parks and Rec — it’s a big position. I think Andy will do well, but I’m cautious, that’s my nature. He’ll be acting for four to six months.

I’m excited about some things we’ve been talking about. I’m confident Parks and Rec will become not only self-sustaining, but a money-maker for the county.

Q. You’ve talked about that you’d like to do some better marketing for the county, that maybe the Indian logo mascot would go away.

A. I have an economic development team. We met for the first time after the budget (was completed). I pulled together this team last week. We have a lot community leaders on there.

I’ve gone three different ways on it. I’ve asked the team to divide ourselves into three separate ways.

The first: What rules and regulations do we need to change to encourage businesses to stay and keep them here. The other being the entrepreneurs — what can I do held entrepreneurs? Thirdly, I need the CEOs of the bigger (local) companies to tell me what they look for, what do they need.

We will be doing marketing. We will be on TV. I want to do an ad to show off Wicomico County, show it all. We need ads that show the whole county — show the education, show the farms, show our industrial park.

When you see that ad and hear it talking about Wicomico County, you’ll want to go there. People have got to be reminded about what we have.

I want to rebrand Wicomico County and show that it’s a progressive county.

Q. I understand you’re working on this issue of Meals on Wheels cuts that are coming fromGov. Larry Hogan’s office.

A. I went to the governor’s office a week ago and know of the cuts he’s going through. We’ve lost $47,000 for MAC, which is our Meals on Wheels program, and that bothers me.

If I have to, I’ll make it work somehow. I’m not going to let our seniors go hungry, that’s for sure.

I’ve always learned that you judge a community by how it takes care of its children, and how you take care of your seniors. I’m very strong on the the saying “you’ve never stood as tall as when you stoop to help a child.”

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Q. You seem to be conducting yourself with some true civility. I haven’t detected a “to the victor goes the spoils” attitude.

A. I sat there and took some hits on West Salisbury. I understand that. My thinking is that when people disagree, they should file to run against me. That’s the process we have.

I think the world of everybody who came before me. Rick (Pollitt) and I have nothing personally against each other, we just differed on how to get there.

There’s nobody who had any more love for Wicomico County than Rick Pollitt. But we just had a different way of going about it.

Q. After the election, there were questions about who you would keep on staff-wise.

A. I’ve got a great staff here, but I’ve got to prepare to lose this staff.

Let’s be honest: Sharon’s (Morris, Assistant Director of Administration) been here 30-some years, Wayne (Strausburg, Director of Administration) is (turning) 67 this year.

This staff … I hope they go through my first term. You did hear that … first term.

Right now, I’ve lost so much in real estate in recent years that I’m probably going to need four terms. (Laughs.)

Q. I’m surprised that you sound eager to run again already. There was some gossip early on that you weren’t really thrilled and maybe you wouldn’t want to do it a second time.

A. Everybody tries to you what I’m (thinking and) doing. But I like what I’m doing. I have not found anything any more enjoyable.

I love my building career, I love my restaurants I’ve done, the other things, the limousine business, the paddle boats … I enjoy the challenge.

I like the challenge of: “Can I make this work? Can I take A and make it into B?

I don’t know why anyone would say that (I might only want one term).

But it is overwhelming. People have no idea how many moving parts this office has: 900 county employees, full and part time; the fact that I’m the highest ranking official this side of the Bay Bridge is kind of a … “Really?”

I don’t worry about that, but it’s kind of daunting, because wherever I go, I’m judged. I have a pair of jeans with a hole in them, and before, I could be out fishing and maybe run into ACE Hardware with them on — you just don’t do that now, because of the position.

I respect the position, respect the office, and there’s a certain decorum that you go with.

You may see me sometimes without a tie, but out of respect, I will office wear a coat and tie whenever I’m in this office.

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Q. The budget was just approved last week by the County Council. How was your first budget process?

A. Daunting. Not so much the dollars part, the $129 million, it was trying to make sure the people got all of the services that they needed without losing anything. I am very proud of my department heads, and I am saying that because they cut their budgets — I asked for 2.5 percent in cuts and they gave me 6.4 percent. The biggest problem is what we lost in state (support) funding, our tax revenues and disparity grant. Then there were the raise in Maintenance of Effort to the Board of Education, the raise the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) cost us this year, all that — I was $3.6 million short. And I was able to make it all up, with the exception of a little, through cuts. I only had to take very little from the reserve fund.

Actually, I think when we get our income tax revenue in, we will have made that back up.

Q. I recently had a conservative friend complain to me: “When I voted for that guy, I thought he would cut my taxes.” You getting any feedback like that?

A. (Culver laughs.) I never said … none of my campaign literature or anywhere ever said that said I would cut your taxes, it said I would hold your taxes, and I have done that.

Cutting taxes? I don’t know that we need them cut, as much as we all need to know this is what they’re going to be, and we can count on that and we know where we’re going to go to from here.

I would like to go ahead and finish cutting out the inventory tax, before the time is up. I would like to work on cutting the “piggyback tax” (on income). If we can lock in our taxes for a few years, I think we’re all OK with that.

Q. We hear stories about some of our wealthier Wicomico folks moving to Worcester to save money because of that county’s lower piggyback tax.

A. Per capita, were taxed among the top 3 or 4 in the state , but in (per capita) income we’re among the bottom.

Q. Ed Baker is retiring at the end of June, so you’re about to hire a county lawyer.

A. We’re working on that. What we’re going to do with the Law Department is — and I am weighing this right now — Do we take it back to a contractual basis or do we keep it in-house?

I am leaning toward contractural.

With contractual, we do not have (to pay) all the (payroll) benefits that have that go with it. This is what’s hurting a lot of governments, the sustainability of having to pay benefits and pensions and that kind of stuff. That part of it is seriously turning me toward that.

Not that they aren’t all great lawyers, but sometimes our department heads call our in-house lawyers with their questions, and maybe they’re calling them too much. Maybe it needs to be that you’re a department head — and if you need to call the lawyer, but if not — just do it.

You’re a department head. You’re put in a position of leadership, you have to make decisions. Too many people have been taught: “Don’t make a decision without a lawyer.”

Lawyers are a necessary part of society, but it does become troublesome in what it costs us.

Q. Wouldn’t a change like that have to got to the Charter Review Committee first?

A. (The Charter) says we will have a Law Department, but it doesn’t say whether its contractual (or an employee).

The Charter, like anything else, is always open to interpretation.

Q. Can you get this done in time, before Mr. Baker leaves? Is there a rush?

A. There isn’t a rush, but there’s a conscientious effort to get started on it.We’re in very good hands with Maureen Lanigan (the deputy county attorney). She’s very capable.

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Q. You made economic development a big campaign issue. At the debate I moderated, I recall you saying “we need to get Dave Ryan more help” in referring to the Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development director and his organization. Yet your spending on economic development in this year’s budget was flat.

A. There’s $685,000 put toward economic development. Last year, economic development had the same thing.

People feel like it wasn’t used, but it was, because the money that was set aside for that was actually used to cover (the moratorium on) impact fees — $370,000 went to that.

Dave Ryan is excellent in what he does, but he needs help in certain things. He needs a full-time staff.

We need to tap some of our local leaders who can go out on our behalf — a Henry Hanna, a John McClellan —  who know how to get in the door and say “this is why you need to be here in Wicomico County.”

But I’ve got to have all of my ducks in a row, so when that person brings that prospect back to Wicomico County and they say to me as the executive, “What can you do for me?” — I know exactly what I can do for them.

I think one of my greatest accomplishments so far is that I got the moratorium (extended) on the building (impact fees for new development).

It’s helped. Last year we did 74 house in four months — that’s $10.6 million worth of real estate being built in Wicomico County.

We’ve not seen the worst of the foreclosures yet — that’s unfortunate. We’re not going to get our stability back until we can get those off the books. It’s still tight on all of us.

Q. Tell me the biggest surprise since you walked in here: One of those things you thought you knew.

A. The biggest surprise is the amount of time it all takes, to be as hands-on as I am.

Like you say, I can go cut ribbons and do all that — and I’m not knocking anybody — but I’m (working) 12, 14 hours every day.

But I love it. I sleep like a rock when I get home, except I do get up sometimes when my mind gets rolling on an idea and I can’t stop.

The amount of hours it takes to try to have your hands on this county is a hard thing. As much as I enjoy it, it’s understandably exhausting.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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