Local lawmakers return to work in General Assembly

Lower Shore lawmakers who headed back to Annapolis this week will be asked to introduce legislation for Salisbury and Wicomico County and also seek answers for failing septic systems and better internet accessibility.

And the Maryland General Assembly, which convened Wednesday, faces what state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza calls a “tough, hard budget year” due to Covid-19.

Coronavirus-protective dividers have been erected in the Maryland Senate

Covid also will change how legislators conduct business this year. They will find plexiglass barriers in the Senate and House of Delegates chambers and members will be split between the State House and annex locations during sessions.

Delegate Carl Anderton said legislators will be connected via big screen televisions on both ends so they can vote together. He will be among the 71 House members who will be in the State House. The other 70 delegates will be in the annex across the street in the House Office Building.

Speaker Pro Tempore Sheree Samples-Hughes, a Democrat from Wicomico County representing District 37A, said the Eastern Shore Delegation will hold its regular Friday morning meetings on Zoom rather than in person this session.

Anyone needing a physical meeting with legislators will be escorted in and out of the building, she said.

Anderton said members of the Senate and House may get the Covid-19 vaccine soon because continuity of government is one of the state’s priorities. If that happens, it may allow all legislators to return to their respective chambers before the session ends in April.

In the meantime, Anderton said he and other lawmakers who are used to personal contact with colleagues and constituents will not have that advantage this year.

“It’s going to be a very lonely session,” he said.

Special tax districts

Among the local bills being introduced are ones that will give enabling authority to both the city and county to establish special tax districts, in particular one that offers tax incentives for Downtown Salisbury apartment and hotel projects.

HORIZON – or a Hotel Or Residential Incentive Zone – is designed to stimulate new development by offering city property tax abatements that lower the amount of taxes owed for a specified period of time. City officials have said they hope it will help spur development in the city’s core.

Anderton said the measure has the potential to “even the playing field” in the county which competes for new construction with neighboring Worcester County as well as Sussex County.

“I think it’s awesome we’re going to be able to compete,” he said.

During the first five years, developers would get a 100 percent city property tax credit. In years six through 10, the credit would be 80 percent. After that it would gradually be reduced to 40 percent in year 20.

The Salisbury City Council and Wicomico County Council have both thrown support behind the program which is expected to add new jobs to the Downtown workforce by creating an environment that will be attractive to new companies.

The proposed HORIZON project zone would include the Downtown area and extend west to the Salisbury Marina and along the North Prong of the Wicomico River, known on the city’s zoning map as the Central Business District and the Riverfront Redevelopment District.

City officials expect the new program will attract private capital investments into the Central Business District and Riverfront Redevelopment Districts by funding large scale development projects that increase the assessed value of real property in Downtown by millions of dollars.

Upon completion, the program is expected to increase the assessed value of the real property base value by at least $10 million, according to city officials.

If the bill is approved, it will allow the city to establish special tax districts in other neighborhoods. Likewise, the county could expand it to other areas outside of Salisbury, Anderton said.

Failing septic systems

Legislators also plan to seek help from the Maryland Department of the Environment to address failing septic systems in the county.

During a Dec. 15 meeting with the County Council, members told of constituents’ complaints about dealing with the health department to get permits. Councilman Bill McCain called it a “major challenge” to get septic approvals on some lots, and suggested there ought to be different standards for perc tests on Eastern Shore land.

The county also will be looking at eventually creating a public sewer system to serve neighborhoods just outside city limits. In some cases, the lots are small and do not have enough room for a new septic system when the old one fails.

Anderton said the Eastern Shore Delegation will set up a meeting with Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles soon to discuss the problems with County Council members.

Other priorities

Lower Shore legislators also have other issues they hope to address this session:

  • Restoring the disparity grant to Wicomico County. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed all of last year’s bills that included funding when Covid-19 forced the state to redirect money. Lawmakers hope there will be enough votes this session to override the veto.
  • Expanding broadband internet access. The Covid-19 pandemic showed a desperate need for it when students and their parents needed to connect virtually with work and school.
  • Prioritizing Covid-19 vaccines for poultry workers and generally supporting farmers, the poultry industry and agricultural research.
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