For county executive, it’s all about community and progress

A judge’s son and a county sheriff’s grandson, Rick Pollitt grew up in Allen and never wandered far from home.

After graduating from Washington College in Kent County on the Upper Shore, Pollitt returned to the Lower Shore to serve as Somerset County’s Planning and Zoning director. From there, he went on to a 22-year career as Fruitland’s city manager.

When referendum was approved to revamp Wicomico County government, instituting a county executive model in 2006, Pollitt, a Democrat, was an immediate and popular choice for the job. He was re-elected executive in 2010 in a much closer race against Republican Joe Ollinger and will face County Councilman Bob Culver in this fall’s election.

Rick Pollitt was interviewed by Salisbury Independent’s Greg Bassett in his third-floor office in the Government Office Building.

Q. You were the first person to hold the county executive’s job in Wicomico County. It’s eight years later — how is it going?

I think, under the circumstances, it’s going pretty well. I think we’ve done a good job with the transition from the old government to the new. I think we’ve done a good job keeping the ship afloat through this darn recession, when we’ve just had so many challenges. We’re now in what I’m calling ‘a new normal’ because the bar has been reset, and we’ve done a good job adapting to the new normal as evidenced by our bond rating upgrades last year.

I would love to be here long enough to have some sense of stability in the economy so we can actually go out and start doing things — putting things together and making our mark.

Q. You mention the bond rating. That’s always been a political bragging point, going back way before you, even. Why is that important?

It matters when we go to the market to borrow money, like for Bennett Middle School. The stronger our bond rating, the greater our credit is and the interests rates we’re able to attract are more favorable. We can save millions of dollars based on one or two levels of the bond rating.

Last year, still in pretty tough times, we received upgrades from two of the three agencies.

Q. As the first county executive, what were your expectations?

I probably wouldn’t have run if it wasn’t for being the first. I actually voted against (the county executive form of government in the voter referendum). I understood why were having a community discussion (about the government change) but I thought it was just because we were having a breakdown with the people we had in office at the time.

I just thought to completely overturn the whole system of government and bring in something new — I’m not a great fan of change anyway — was an overreaction. I thought just getting the right people into office (on the County Council) would have been enough. I really wasn’t convinced that we needed to make the change.

However, having made the change, I was interested to see that the first person have a serious commitment to public service trying to build community and to be there for all of the right reasons.

Secondly, I wanted to build on the reputation that I had built in Fruitland as offering a progressive type of administrative path. There are people who always say you do things by the book — people will want to do something (develop a property, open a business) and you look in the book, and you say, “Sorry, you can’t do that.” But then you continue on and work with the people to get what they want done, and do it by the book.

Maybe we can work out a way to accommodate what the rules are and what you’re trying to do. If it’s a good idea for the community. I think I did establish a reputation in Fruitland for working with businesses, for working with neighborhoods and communities, for being someone with ideas and for believing in genuine community outreach.

I think a big public expectation of the job is that you do generate some a community discussion with a vision in mind.

I always noticed when I worked in Somerset County that there was a real sense of community and county identity. People from there will say ‘I’m from Somerset County’ and they will explain what that means. But I never got the same sense about Wicomico County. People from here will say they’re from Salisbury or Sharptown or Willards, but they don’t describe themselves as a Wicomico Countian. And I really thought I would like to help create a sense of a county-community.

I was driving one day and this idea, this slogan came into my head: ‘Building bridges, building communities.’ The idea that we would reach out and engage all of the different elements in the community, bring them in, and say ‘let’s have a conversation about what kind of Wicomico County we think we are, what we want to be and how can we all collaborate to make it happen.’

With that as a motivation, I came in and ran for the job.

Q. It seems like the County Council has been perpetually divided during your tenure. Is that a good thing, or troubling to you?

Normally, I think its a good thing. Normally, I like the idea of a wide variety of opinions and discourse — if it can be kept on a professional level. I don’t challenge many people’s motives when they espouse a particular point of view.

What I have found is that we actually have two Republican parties in Wicomico County. We have the more moderate Republican Party, like the Lew Rileys and Bob Lawrences who work for the good of the county. Then you have the others who are just obstructionists. They’re opposed to anything we are doing, simply because I’m a Democrat. They don’t want me to succeed, and they’re just so blatant about it.

When the County Council voted last year for my budget, 4-3, three of those four (voting in favor) were Republicans. And the local Republican machine went right up to the microphone, right on television, and tore them up — saying we didn’t vote for you to do that and we’re going to remember that in the next election. And how dare you betray us and support the county executive’s budget?

To me, that was a profile in courage on their part, because there were acting in what was the best interest of the county.

I thank the lord that we do have a majority on the council who do seem to want to work together.

Q. You were member of the Wicomico school board for nine years. You understand how things work on their end. Why is the school budget always so controversial?

It’s the largest single recipient of county tax dollars. When it comes to determining how that money is spent it is probably the area where the (county executive and council) have the least influence. They way the system is is that the board gets their money from the county and then they spend it as they see fit.

I think some of the concern is rooted in the system because the board is basically a state agency, its members appointed by the governor. When I was on the board, I was often frustrated that there wasn’t a sense that they needed to be more transparent, that they needed to share what they were doing and why they were doing it, and how they were doing it.

We need to engage the community more. We need to have what goes on on Long Avenue (where the school office is located) be more open and available to folks.

Q. The county executive’s post was created in the tidal wave that followed a citizens’ referendum in 2000 that affected the county’s ability to raise taxes. How has the so-called “revenue cap” affected how the county conducts business?

It’s been devastating in our ability to advance.

Whenever you say spending, the word spending has gotten such an evil connotation now. Im trying to get people to make a differentiation between spending and investing. When you see our tax rate dropped from the high that led to the revenue cap, down to what it was in 1952, it’s not surprising then to see we haven’t had the money to keep our infrastructure in place. We’re dead last in the state of Maryland for the shape of our local infrastructure, our roads and buildings and other facilities.

I’m not saying that we should have done this, but if we just had frozen our tax rate at what it was, at the top, we would have had today more than $100 million in revenues to put into roads and schools and to hire enough people to be more active than we are now.

We have had a bare bones budget, even through the good times, because we’ve been having to lower the tax rate.

What people have found out, and I don’t think it was anticipated when the cap was put into place, is that things could go very wrong.

There was always an assumption that new growth would increase assessments and property values would always be such that you would always have new revenue coming in. I don’t think anyone expected the bottom to fall out of the economy and all of the housing values to fall.

In the last three years, we’ve had to raise the tax rate just to break even. Last year it was about 7 cents, this year it’s a little more than 4 cents, just to bring in the same money next year that we have this year.

I would say with the cap, though I understand why it happened, was a knee-jerk reaction and the cap itself is structurally flawed.

Q. Salisbury and Wicomico County were so long known as progressive communities. There’s a sense that some of that is coming back now, but there was a long period people observed that neither Salisbury nor Wicomico were especially progressive.

I agree that that has been the perception. But I don’t know that I can point out any single thing that’s happened to cause that. I do know that the political divide that you see nationally (and in Congress) is being felt locally.

I don’t know why (we’re not progressive), other than maybe the best people aren’t getting engaged. I always refer back to Henry Parker and Lewis Riley, because — to me — they were the epitome of being able to rise above politics and work in a spirit of collaboration. Party labels at our level get in the way. Party labels at our level do more harm than good. yet, there are people who live and die by them.

Q. I understand that you still own the home that you grew up in in Allen. What is it about a small town and rural setting that appeals to you?

I’m in the house I grew up in. My cousin Melissa (Pollitt-Bright, a judge on the county’s Orphan’s Court) is right next door, in the house her father lived in, our fathers were brothers. Right out the back yard is my father’s sister’s house, and right beside her is her family, and my sister recently bought a house on the corner. So we’re all right back in this little compound, living where we all were when we were children.

Q. What is next for the county? If re-elected, where do you hope to take the county through 2018?

I like that I have four more years of accomplishment to run on (in this election). I think my record is more solid after eight (years) than four. And I think going through the recession the way we did and coming through it with the ratings upgrades and some of the things we were able to accomplish, is appreciated.

 I think the case for electing me is a whole lot stronger now and I don’t see anyone advocating going in a different direction or doing anything in anyway other that what we’re doing.

The most specific community concern I hear is that we don’t seem to be the hub of the Peninsula anymore. We haven’t entered recovery yet. We read about recovery going on elsewhere. We’re not seeing it here yet. We’ve always lagged — slow to have a recession hit, slow to recover from it.

Our numbers are showing signs of improvement, but its no where near where it needs to go. And people still feel that.

There is plenty to do. We are building a new Bennett Middle School. West Salisbury Elementary is in need of improvements — I want to see that happen while I’m still here. Parkside (High School) needs some attention and is due for renovations.

One of the things I really want to see take root is our Vision Action Committee. What we’ve done is to bring a lot of the big decision-makers from all around the county — health care, business and industry, education, agriculture — together to set priorities. We wanted to do a study that doesn’t just go on a shelf and get referred to in the past tense.

This is an action plan, where we’re coming up with short-, medium-, and long-term goals to achieve so that we can have measured progress in how we’re dealing with economic development, education, transportation — all of those things.

People are constantly barraged with the negative, about what’s wrong with everything. So I think there’s a concern that we’re not the happy “jewel” that we used to be when we were younger — the Hub of Delmarva.

We really need to find a way to leverage all of the assets we have and collaborate more.

Q. What is your favorite childhood memory of growing up in Wicomico County?

My favorite memory was just coming out, getting on my bike and pedaling down to the ball field, and playing baseball with my friends. Went everywhere on my bike. Stayed out late on my bike.

Growing up in Allen in the 1950s and ’60s was a place where every kid had a dozen mothers, and everyone knew all of the dogs by name.

And I think it’s that homey sense of growing up there that is my favorite memory. It really was a community, a village — the ‘It Takes A Village’ kind of thing.

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

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