Q&A: Phil Tilghman talks VOICE, taxes, schools, service

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Phil Tilghman lists Wor-Wic Community College’s planning and construction among his biggest achievements.

Phil Tilghman is regarded as the “Dean Of Wicomico County.” His oh-shucks personality, blended with a genuine fondness for people, a keen sense of smarts, impeccable politeness and a dominating physical presence, serve to make him a natural for leadership posts.

Tilghman was County Council president for four years, and council vice president for eight years, serving a total of 16 years. He helped guide Wicomico through its largest period of growth in the late 1990s. He had a hand in decisions regarding the re-construction of the Youth & Civic Center, the county Detention Center, the landfill and airport expansions, the county courthouse expansion, and the major renovations to Prince Street, Westside, Pemberton, James M. Bennett, Parkside and Wicomico Middle schools. He stepped down in 2002.

He has chaired the boards of almost every important nonprofit, from the Salvation Army to the YMCA to the Chamber of Commerce to the Greater Salisbury Committee. He has coached Little League, been a church leader and led the effort to save Green Hill Golf Club.

Tilghman retired from the petroleum business that his son now operates, Tilghman Oil. He went to work there, for his father, in 1964. He and his wife, Carol Ryan Tilghman, have three children; nine grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Tilghman hosts a weekly public access interview show on PAC 14, “One On One.” Tilghman allowed Salisbury Independent’s Greg Bassett to turn the tables — Bassett served as host and Tilghman as guest. What follows is a portion of their discussion Friday in a studio at PAC 14, near the Salisbury University campus. Their full conversation will be broadcast on an upcoming edition of “One On One.”

After Friday’s interview, Tilghman was headed to Washington College in Chestertown, to attend his 50th class reunion.

 

Q. I have a hard time thinking of anyone who has had such a long commitment to serving our community. You’ve been a player in just about every important nonprofit, you’ve served at the top of the county’s government, you’ve coached Little League, you’ve hosted a public access TV interview show. Why do you do it?

A. It’s a labor of love, so to speak. It makes life interesting to be involved in the community in which you live. I’m not happy or fulfilled unless I’m doing something for the Chamber of Commerce, for the Salvation Army, for Wicomico County government.

Q. You mention the Salvation Army. You were very much involved in the opening of the westside center.

A. Yes, very much. I was co-chairman, along with Renzlo Foxwell, to raise the funds for what is now the Richard Hazel Youth Center and that all came about when I was still on the County Council.

Gary Mackes came to the council and said it had come to (his) attention that 80 percent of the Juvenile Justice intake cases weree from homes that are within a two-mile radius of what is now the Billy Gene Jackson Park, so (Mackes) wanted to build a facility for mentoring and after-school programs.

Vic Laws (the County Council member) asked the question: ‘This sounds an awful lot like the Salvation Army.’ Gary Mackes said: ‘Well, I went to Benny Riddick (the Salvation Army’s community leader) to get the dimensions for this building.’

So, long story short, Salvation Army came in, raised the money for that building and built it on county property using city water and sewer. The deal was supposed to be that if you (SA) go ahead and build it, then we’ll give you the money we were going to pay for operating funds.

Unfortunately, an election occurred and the new people decided that they didn’t want to do that. So the Salvation Army was left out there hanging, which is one of the reasons that Dick Hazel later gave over a million dollars, which is still generating income for the westside youth center.

(When it came to designing it) Jim Perdue and Frank Perdue — Jim Perdue in particular — was talking about his associates and their children (and their needs). Of course, (Jim) started his (poultry) career, as I learned reading your Salisbury Independent, managing the (downtown) plant, and knew all of the people who worked there (and lived near there).

We asked him what he thought and he said ‘Don’t ask me — go down to the plant and ask the associates.’ When Renzlo Foxwell walked in, he had been principal of the (segregated) Salisbury High School, all the people there knew him.

When we mentioned something about a pool, everyone there wanted that. There’s an Olympic-size pool there. I’m very proud of that — very proud.

The Salvation Army this year is celebrating 100 years in Salisbury — from 1914. In September, we’re going to have a centennial reunion dinner, where all of these old guys are going to come back who served as coaches or played at Salvation Army. We’re going to have a banquet at the Moose (Lodge) and then the next day is the opening day of football, where you have all of those teams out there in their uniforms and the cheerleaders and everything.

When the Yellow Jackets are introduced, then all of the guys — all of the old guys who were Yellow Jackets — will go out and stand with that team. The the Blue Dogs will be with the Blue Dogs, the Green Terrors — all of that. It’s just going to be fun.

 

Q. You were first elected to the County Council in 1984?

A. Yes, it was 1984. Back then there were five members: Henry Parker, Jack Morris, Betty Gardner, Julia Foxwell and me. That was a great County Council.

Betty Gardner was called the “mother of tourism.” And look at the impact of tourism today. It’s millions of dollars. And all of this sports tourism and all of the things that go on at the Civic Center, the Delmarva Shorebirds – that’s part of our tourism. Betty had the foresight to do that and knew that it could have a big impact. That was an interesting council. A lot of fun.

Q. That was also the council that involved in the famous redistricting lawsuit.

A. The Justice Department said they were going to sue Wicomico County, unless we came up with a redistricting plan. We had a lot of help from the Greater Salisbury Committee and (Salisbury lawyer) Jack Webb, a guy who could hone in on a situation.

He chaired the GSC committee that looked into this and I was very involved as well. What we came up with was the 5 districts, one of which was the minority district, and two at-large. The theory was that you would be voting for three people to represent you on a 7-member council. The Justice Department said, now – wait a minute – the minority community is roughly 20 percent of the community, 1 out of 5 is 20 percent, one out of 7 isn’t, so you’re watering it down.

So they sued us and we all went to federal court in Baltimore. Oh my, we spent a week up there in court. We won the case.

Then we came back to Salisbury and in the next (council) meeting I made the motion that we send our (legal bills) to the Justice Department. (County Attorney) Ed Baker said “we can’t do that Mr. Tilghman.” But I said, “we can at least try” and put it on the record.

Anyway, the county paid for it. We’ve been served by a seven-person council ever since.

Q. Wasn’t that also the council who got caught up in the (Heavy Metal rockstar) Ozzy Osbourne concert flap at the Civic Center. Some people accused you of trying to deny Ozzy his First Amendment right to play his music.

A. Now, wait a minute — I was the only one who voted to let that concert happen.

I will never forget that as long as I live.

Bob Wagonner (Civic Center manager) had rented the Civic Center to Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy was getting ready to go back out on tour, and the plan was only for Ozzy to practice there.

(That was back when) Ozzy was biting the heads off bats and he had that big dragon tattoo. That was back when he could actually make a coherent sound.

He was going to practice for the whole week and Bob Wagonner said to him, ‘Instead of having a dress rehearsal, why don’t you have a whole show? We’ll sell tickets. You’ll make money, we’ll make money.’

Pastor Oren Perdue (of the Salisbury Baptist Temple) came up (to the council) and brought some of his people. They said Ozzy was delivering satanic messages, if you played his records backwards you would hear a satanic message. I don’t know how people figure this stuff out.

So, it was Betty Gardner who said, ‘I make the motion that we cancel the contract.” Julia Foxwell seconded it!

I said, ‘Wait a minute: These people have signed our contract — a county contract — that we sent to them and they signed.’

Anyway, it came to a vote and it was 4-1. The other four voted to cancel because they were faced with their constituents out there. I said ‘This doesn’t make sense from a business point of view.’

Q. And then I wrote a harsh editorial saying our county government is completely out of touch with the public ….

A. We actually had protesters with plackers! There were people outside yelling.

The promoter called the (then) new county attorney, Ed Baker, who I think had been county attorney for about a month.

The promoter asked: ‘What’s the assessable base of your county, because that’s what  we’re going to sue you for!’

So we called an emergency meeting. Oh, Henry (Parker) was so upset. Well, we were all upset — we had put the county in harm’s way. So, what can we do? I made the motion to rescind the cancellation, to bring that back up, and we voted again.

And Ozzy came to Salisbury.

Q. When the county executive referendum was passed, everyone immediately said “Phil Tilghman’s going to be the first county executive. But you didn’t run.

A. I had had 16 years in county government, the last four were unpleasant.

There were seven personalities, and we never did get along. It was majority Republican and minority Democrat. (In the election) I got the most number of votes, but I wasn’t the president of the County Council because the other party had the majority. And they started fighting.

Before we ever had our first meeting, they were fighting about who was going to be in charge out of that four. I mean, they were fighting tooth and nail – and they fought like that for four years. And they fought with the rest of us. So, I felt like we didn’t get much done.

Before, once you were elected it didn’t matter (what party you were in). Nobody cared. (Republican Councilman) Bill Carey and I sat next to each other, and we were good friends – and we’re still good friends to this day – because we were both business people.

He was in the banking business and I was in the oil business. We agreed most of the time on most issues. I was the guy – the designated guy to make motions – I was vice president. Henry (Parker) -–King Henry – would bring something up and I, Prince Philip, would make the motion, and it would get passed.

And it worked. It just worked! But that last council (that I served on) that was the council that voted for the big tax increase …

Q. You are referring to the largest tax increase in the history of Wicomico County?

A. Somewhere I’ve heard it called that (laughs). At the SAME time we attempted to increase the recordation tax, and to designate that money for school construction. I think that was a good idea.

If you think about the millions of dollars that are borrowed each and every year, and then paid back over 15 or 20 years, to build schools. That’s what we use the bond market for. And we have a tipping fee to pay for the landfill, we have a room tax to fund tourism. So, it seemed to me that was a good idea.

There had been an automatic, each year, declaration that no matter what came up we were not going to raise taxes. And this had gone back to before I was on the council. And so here was a backlog.

I remember Ronnie Willey, who back then was principal at Westside Intermediate, who said to me, ‘Phil, when we used to go to state (education) meetings, in Annapolis or wherever, and everyone looked on Wicomico County as being the best school system on the Shore, the leader, the progressive educational system on the Shore. Now we don’t (receive) that same respect. We’ve lost it.’

That played very heavily with me.

If there’s anything that I want people to say that Phil Tilghman is associated with, I don’t want it to be the ‘largest tax increase in the history of Wicomico County.’ I want it to be the support I had for education. That’s the key. That’s the key for people to be able to read your newspaper, to be able to get ahead, to get good jobs, improve themselves.

Wor-Wic Community College is a great example. That came about – I was on the committee, the site selection committee. We wanted somewhere on the east side (so Worcester people could access it).

Madelyn Perdue owned this piece of property out there, which is now Wor-Wic, it was 158 acres and I remember someone said ‘Gosh, we don’t need all of that land,’ and Frank Morris (a former Salisbury mayor who was also on the committee), with his foresight, said ‘You never know. The day may come when you have all kinds of different training, and you’ll need the land to expand. So let’s buy the whole thing.’

Which we did. What a visionary Frank was.

It’s a great institution, one of the great — should be — one of the things those of us in Wicomico County should be most proud of.

Q. We talked a little about the revenue cap. There are people who blame the tax increase, implemented by the council that you were on, for the rise in the VOICE, and the referendum that allowed the revenue cap.

A. It was a perfect storm. After years and years and years of not increasing taxes, the new council got together and said, ‘OK, what do we want to do first?’ And we said we want to fully fund the request of the Board of Education, we want to bring the Sheriff’s Office deputies closer to a parity situation with the state police (pay). We were training all of these officers and losing them to Ocean City or Pocomoke – not just to the state police.

And then there was the issue of our bonded indebtedness, nearly all of which was for school construction, and I brought up again my (previously) unsuccessful attempt from three councils before to have the recordation tax raised – and they agreed to that, saying that it would generate a million and a half to $2 million a year, based on the transfer of property.

There was a lot of growth then, and my thought was growth would be paying for the new schools and the new classrooms.

I don’t think the increase in taxes bothered the Realtors, anywhere near as much as they were bothered by the recordation tax, which they thought would hurt their ability to sell homes. So, they got involved.

And then there was always this – I’ll call them a ‘cast of characters’ who, no matter what you wanted to do, they were against.

Every time we had a public hearing, you’d see the same people out in the audience with a scowl on their face. All of those things united – and the Realtors really led the VOICE thing, and when they got that petition signed we were dead in the water – we meaning the county.

They very thing we were trying to accomplish by the tax increase and the recordation tax actually turned out to be the vehicle – you know, Wicomico County is close to the bottom in support for education, because of the revenue cap.

So the very thing we were trying to do ended up being the worst enemy of education, frankly.

Q. No politician is going to run on a platform of getting rid of the revenue cap.

A. No, probably not. Rick Pollitt has mentioned something about it, but he has said it’s the will of the people, which is kind of the political line if you’re running. Because there’s still an undercurrent of Voice people around here who would be ready to rally if we said we wanted to alter – just alter – the revenue cap.

Our revenue cap is strangling the ability of our elected officials to do what we ask them to do.

It’s interesting that this year the county executive put forth a tax increase that’s within the guidelines of the revenue cap, and you still have the same group of people out there arguing against it: ‘I’m living on a fixed income, the county should live within its means’ – all of the same arguments are there. I can say all of this, because I’m not running for anything.

My biggest regret is that in trying to do too much all at one time – I think if we had said we’re going to have a 10-cents increase this year and we’ll talk about it next year – nobody would have said anything.

We were trying to make up for what had been past lapses and great opportunity, and we tried to do it all at one time.

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

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