Analysis: Who will be our next County Executive?

When talking with Bob Culver, it usually doesn’t take too much time for him to mention that he grew up on a farm off Jersey Road, a rural stretch where blacks and poor whites lived on Salisbury’s West Side.

Scrappy, blunt and headstrong, Wicomico’s incumbent County Executive is sometimes cited as ruthless when in his pursuit of a political objective. He occasionally displayed an uneven side after taking office four years ago, but has seemed more tempered and diplomatic in recent years.

Wicomico County Executive Bob Culver. 

Jack Heath, meanwhile, is the personification of the words “tempered” and “diplomatic.” A New Jersey native, he is a trained engineer and lifelong business leader. He possesses an air of stability and civility appropriate to a corporate boardroom. He seems quite used to the challenges of leading people and maintaining a sense of calm while doing so.

He is so polite that he sometimes appears weak in his efforts to strip from Culver the County Executive’s seat.

John Hamilton is a 30-year-old man with a virtual list of grievances against county government and the local political system. Less than half the age of either Culver or Heath, Hamilton has a common-sense approach to the issues facing Wicomico, while insisting his perspectives as a young leader would benefit the county.

One of these men will be the next County Executive.

Debate of decorum

If Jack Heath arrived at Oct. 11’s candidate forum at Salisbury University determined to attack his opponent and draw clear contrasts between the men, he missed the opportunity. If his goal was to be measured man-to-man for composure and stateliness, he succeeded. A frequent word used to describe his performance: “Presidential.”

Jack Heath has been President of the Salisbury City Council since 2016.

Given that incumbents routinely hold the advantage in any election, challengers must usually air some criticisms of the office holder they seek to replace. Heath, instead, attempted to contrast himself on only a handful of issues. There were few striking points of disagreement; there was no obviously planned effort to cross over the walls of politeness and question the opponent.

Normally there would be praise for a candidate who engaged in such civility. But who better than a political challenger to point out the incumbent’s weaknesses?

That never happened.

Culver has never seemed comfortable talking about either himself or his accomplishments, and he had some awkward moments in the forum sponsored by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce/Greater Salisbury Committee/Public Affairs & Civic Engagement. Winding down on what could easily be regarded as a successful first term, he seemed hesitant to list the changes he had implemented.

Hamilton, humorous in his presentations, trotted out some common-sense opinions, but seemingly failed to deliver a game-changer viewpoint.

“There are more reasons to leave Wicomico County than to stay,” he said, almost seeming to startle the audience. “Other counties have better schools and jobs. These are things we’re failing to be ahead on.”

Democratic contender John Hamilton.

He added: “Younger people need to start getting involved in politics. We’re eventually going to take over anyway. It’s time for us to get involved and get experience.”

PAC 14 ‘One on One’ interviews

In separate interviews on PAC’s “One on One,” each candidate revealed their personalities and their issues of focus.

Culver admitted he had learned a lot since taking the County Executive’s job. Heath said the same about his experience as President of the Salisbury City Council.

Each man faced an image challenge upon their electoral elevations. Culver entered the office eager to undo some of the initiatives of his predecessor and aggressively confronted the Board of Education’s capital construction projects already under way.

Culver also made statements highly critical of both the board and the school administration — his tone was jarring and fueled concerns that the new executive would not be a friend of education.

“I’ve changed, yes,” Culver said. “I’ve come to understand that as County Executive I have explain my thoughts more clearly to people.”

Heath, who had initially been appointed to the City Council with the strong backing of then-Council President Jake Day, was suspected of being too close to the future mayor. Following the election in which Day was seated and Heath was made Council President, speculation was that the new mayor would have a rubber stamp from the council.

Culver ultimately conceded defeat to council members and school officials, who were able to proceed with the final phases of James M. Bennett High School and construction of West Salisbury Elementary School.

Though he didn’t get his way, Culver views the confrontation as a victory because he was able to publicly raise questions about the school board’s spending decisions and set a tone for future discussions.

On the city side, following Day’s election there was an overwhelming political momentum to enact Day’s long list of initiatives. Heath – who was as big of a supporter as Day had been for him – guided the council to follow along, heightening the “rubber stamp” talk.

Disagreement finally emerged at budget time. In the fiscal 2018 budget, Heath and the council balked at the mayor’s increases in sewer and water fees and ultimately passed an alternative plan.

The divide was wider in this year’s budget, when Heath and Day disagreed head-to-head on a separate tax rate for rental and commercial properties.

Party affiliations

Culver is a Republican and has mostly governed as one. His emphasis has been on economic development, presenting budgets that protect the county against deep problems should a major recession reoccur and keeping a lid on discretionary spending.

Immediately after taking office, he demanded a 20 percent cut in all departmental budgets excepting public safety. He did not join with the council in cutting the county’s $0.980 property tax rate by a penny in the 2017 fiscal budget.

Heath has always counted himself as unaffiliated, independent of a party. While he briefly registered as a Republican to challenge Culver, he changed his political status back to “unaffiliated.” A moderate by most standards, Heath would likely have failed in a party primary where absolute conservatism would likely have been demanded.

Ironically, while Heath has said he has no home in the Democratic Party, the Wicomico Democratic Club has endorsed his candidacy.

Hamilton is the Democrat in the race, yet eight years ago he ran for County Council as a Republican, losing in a primary. Wild speculation has suggested Hamilton was somehow put up to the race – most suggest by Culver, but others suggest by Heath – to suck votes away. There is no proof of such a ploy and Hamilton’s viewpoints on issues appear to be solely his own.

Education funding

It could be argued that Culver has come a long way on the issue of education funding, but he has no intention of either seeking a tax hike or making major cuts to other county services to increase education spending much beyond the state’s Maintenance of Effort formula.

In this year’s budget, Culver placed $700,000 to be used to address security concerns in the schools, but set no conditions for the money’s use. Because state education officials already had a security plan and funding for it on their drawing board, schools officials decided a better use would be for instruction and launching universal Pre-K targeted at 4-year-olds.

State spending regulations and long-range budget concerns on the part of the council ultimately limited the amount to $500,000. The contribution, initiated by the executive and forged by the council, resulted the first increase beyond MOE spending since the pre-recession year of 2006.

A growing group of prominent county business leaders, service clubs, nonprofits and advocacy entities have been pushing to make the county’s school system a jewel that will help draw new residents, create a better-educated workforce and make Wicomico a destination for new development.

Led by the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce and Greater Salisbury Committee, the Wicomico Education Foundation has been newly created and is actively raising money for initiatives, including universal Pre-K.

“Funding at Maintenance of Effort is an embarrassment,” said Heath. “Education is the key driver of economic development and jobs. When people are looking to move into the area, the first question is ‘How is the local school system?’ We need to be able to say to them, ‘It’s a good school system and it’s supported by the county.”

Prior to their becoming election opponents, Bob Culver and Jack Heath attend the 2016 opening of the Maryland General Assembly with Delegates Carl Anderton and Mary Beth Carozza.

The idea behind increased spending is this: Inspiring smart students to attend public rather than private schools would improve performance test scores; improved performance would make the county more competitive with next-door Worcester; luring well-heeled people to Wicomico would increase the tax base and perpetuate a cycle of continuous growth.

Heath has made education spending his central issue in comparing and contrasting with Culver. Heath clearly want to increase the county’s contribution to school spending and wants to meet the requests of the soon-to-be elected school board.

Where Culver shows wariness on school spending, Heath is all in.

Heath has two daughters who work as teachers; Culver’s sister is a well-known lifelong teacher in the county.

Both men have voiced support for Superintendent Donna Hanlin. Since she assumed her role in July 2016, Culver’s criticisms of the school administration have been fewer and more polite. For example, he suggested in a public meeting once that unnamed senior school board administrators – then led by Superintendent John Frederickson – were “devious” and “deceitful.” He has also shown that his patience is being tested at public hearings when teachers have risen to criticize his budgets.

Yet, in discussing Culver’s leadership, school board President Don Fitzgerald offered that communication between the executive and board has “improved 100 percent in the past two years,” which about matches Hanlin’s arrival.

“I respect Dr. Hanlin very much,” said Culver. “Once respect exists amongst each other, things go better. I did not (under the previous superintendent) receive that respect as leader of the county – and things went downhill.”

The next big capital spending project in the school board pipeline is a new Beaver Run Elementary on Old Ocean City Road. In the wake of Culver’s questioning on West Salisbury, there was concern he might try to slow or fight this project.

The executive has voiced support, however, as has Heath.

“I’m not excited about spending $35 million on another school, but now is the time and there is a need,” Culver said.

Both Culver and Heath have signaled support for Superintendent Hanlin’s 2020 strategic plans, which call for universal Pre-K, better pay and classroom support for teachers, and a focus on improving the system’s substandard graduation rate.

“I admire Dr. Hanlin’s plan,” Culver said. “As the funding agent, I have to look at the plan and make sure we can implement it without raising taxes by a considerable amount.”

The Revenue Cap

Culver declared “there is no political will” to change the 18-year-old legislation that effectively restrains county spending, and he’s probably right. He is open to having the Revenue Cap measure studied to determine its effects on the county and the economy – and that is all for now.

While there might not be sufficient political will among the citizenry to address the cap, Culver has heard firsthand from the county’s bonds holders on Wall Street who are concerned the county’s hands will be tied in a crisis – and the bond holders will have trouble getting their cash back.

For that reason alone – as these bond holders set credit ratings that determine interest rates – Culver knows the cap is problematic.

Those people in the county still distrustful of their elected officials, however, would seem to prefer the cap remain.

Heath, for his part, insists the cap is wrongly crafted. He has stated that people didn’t understand the measure when they voted for it, that most people thought they were voting for a tax cap.

He suggests an education campaign is in order, and the whole effort should be tried again. However, he does agree that the effort should originate with grassroots groups, the same place from which the cap emanated.

“The Revenue Cap, as it stands now, is no help to us,” Heath said.

Culver also makes a point that the cap can be ignored if school funding is essential, that the county can raise taxes for education if there’s a need. This is an unexplored and only recently discussed aspect of the revenue cap. Again, however, Culver says there doesn’t appear to be political will to make those moves.

“The school board has never been underfunded because of the Revenue Cap,” he said.

Spending the surplus

Central to Heath’s arguments for greater schools spending is the balance in the county’s reserve and rainy day funds – roughly $60 million.

Heath says bluntly that the money is wasting time in a bank.

“As a county taxpayer, I’m just not paying taxes for it to go into a bank account and grow,” the challenger said. “I want to see something being done with that money.”

This is a sensitive subject for Culver, who maintains keeping close tabs on that money is crucial.

“$31 million is restricted,” said Culver, and must be kept on hand to cover the county’s continuing in-place financial commitments. “About $23 (million) or $24 million is there in case there’s a need. All of our money is committed exactly where it needs to go.”

County Executive Bob Culver and County Council President John Cannon attend last year’s dedication of the Perdue homestead in Parsonsburg. Each man is seen as highly protective of their respective branches of government.

Culver’s administration – and this is a point of pride for him – has added about $10 million in four years to the reserve.

It costs about $10 million per month to run Wicomico County; payroll alone for some 1,500 employees is more than $150,000 per day. There are fresh memories of the recessionary mid-2000s when the county conducted layoffs and furloughs to weather the economy.

Heath acknowledges that the Wall Street lenders and others are adamant the county keep full coffers, but still sees room for action.

“We have good bond rating and we’re still growing surplus,” he said. “That just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Heath pointed out that Wicomico County has the highest percent of surplus to revenues in the state.

Stormwater flooding

Every election has an issue that appears out of nowhere and sends politicians scurrying for solutions. In this cycle it’s the hundred-year-flooding experiences the county is experiencing every year instead of every century.

Certain subdivisions have been hit hard and houses have been flooded. The Riawakin Pond has washed out its dam on heavily traveled Nanticoke Road three times in three years. First-floor units in Salisbury’s Canal Woods apartments are now mostly uninhabitable.

Life at just a few feet above sea level has its challenges.

Culver has addressed the issue head-on, sending Public Works crews out to chart flood-prone areas and holding countywide hearings to gather public support.

But Culver has also thrown blame back to homeowners associations and property owners who have failed to maintain their stormwater ditches. Many people don’t seem to realize that neither the county nor state are in the business of maintaining private ditches.

Culver has maintained a sympathetic but hard tone on the issue. Heath, meanwhile, has been able to say the public needs more help from the county.

In the Chamber/GSC forum, Culver offered a dim view of the future, pointing out that with rising sea levels and the trend toward rain-packed storms, the Wicomico and Nanticoke rivers might meet each other one day over the southwest portion of Wicomico County.

City-county relations

In some way or another, Wicomico County and the city of Salisbury have never really gotten along. Politically, the city has always been more progressive and left-leaning that the county, based on urban and rural traditions.

Rural residents all seem to have an opinion about what should happen in Salisbury, much to the irritation of those who live there.

Things became especially exacerbated in 1990, when nonresident city property owners lost their right to vote in city elections. Suddenly the well-heeled Salisbury businessmen who held businesses Downtown and along Salisbury Boulevard had no say in who held office.

County Executive Bob Culver, left, and Salisbury Mayor Jake Day sign the Fire Services Agreement that set reimursement rates for emergency services. The governments have often been at odds.

Various moves to consolidate the city and county governments then emerged and continued – sometimes forcefully, others rather passively – as recently as 2001. Even city residents were intrigued by consolidation: In the same 2000 voter referendum in which they nixed adoption of a city manager form of government, Salisbury voters supported exploring consolidation with the county.

It could be said that Bob Culver and Jake Day get along as well as they have to – and that’s all. They used to meet weekly, but not anymore. Their offices are less than 50 feet apart on the third floor of the Government Office Building.

Culver seems to resent when the city seeks to do things independently, such as holding the spring marathon race and hosting the National Folk Festival. Day seems to prefer end-running the county when he can, while firmly captaining his own ship.

Generational differences, leadership styles and good old political preferences are at the heart of it all – they are two leaders who each want to be No. 1.

In recent days, the Salisbury mayor has become an active supporter of Heath, going to the extreme of debating Heath critics on Facebook.

Culver and Day have worked in unison on some key issues: They negotiated a long-needed Fire Services Agreement that has actually benefited the county financially when the expectation was that it would benefit the city; they are in sync on what the future of the county’s airport should be; they have worked together on funding for opioid crisis initiatives.

On most issues, however, they appear content to go their own way without help from one another.

“As a person, I think Jake is great,” said Culver, “but we’re not going to always agree. We just have different thoughts on how to do things.

“I think that’s healthy because if you don’t have discussions, you don’t have problems being solved.”

Culver was quiet when it came to supporting the National Folk Festival. Many people believed the county was biting off more than it could chew with such an event. In the end, though, he came around and voiced enthusiasm. Ironically, the city probably would never would have gotten the Folk Festival if Culver hadn’t fixed the disrepaired Wicomico Courthouse, thereby returning a historic vibrancy to Downtown.

Currently, the city and county are unhappy housemates in the Government Office Building on South Division Street. The county owns the building but is forced to share; the county would like the city employees to move elsewhere because it needs the space.

Culver, while running for election four years ago, suggested the county move to offices more convenient to county residents. Day, of course, wants to maintain the economic vitality of county employees working in and using Downtown, so he is studying how to move the city government.

Heath has a simple look on the matter: “I don’t see it as city and county – I see it as community.”

County Council relationship

At several points in his four years, tensions between the legislative branch (the County Council) and the executive branch (Culver) have spilled into public view. Methods to enact new poultry house regulations, some finer spending points in various annual budgets, community college scholarships, numerous Charter Amendments designed to increase council power, a surprise but mostly symbolic tax cut and even proposed alterations to the handbook followed by county employees have tested the two areas of government.

Salisbury City Councilwoman April Jackson and Council President Jack Heath participate in a “Coffee with The Council” neighborhood forum at the Salisbury Fire Department.

In the Chamber/GSC forum, Culver declared the so-called tensions “a misconception” and attributed differences to the two branches performing their appropriate checks and balances.

Though the two men are professional and polite with each other, Council President John Cannon has admitted it was mostly business conflicts that kept running against Culver.

Said Culver: “John and I are two strong leaders. There will be fights. We don’t go home angry. We don’t look to hurt the other one.”

In a budget blow-up in Culver’s second year, only Councilman John Hall supported Culver’s final spending amendments; the council was wholly determined to do things its own way.

Heath, for his part, says he gets along with all of the current council leaders and members (though all are up for election and just two are unopposed) and will have no relationship problems.

“I think there needs to be constant communication between the two groups,” said Heath. “For some reason it doesn’t happen.”

Heath also said the council too often reacts with surprise to action coming from the executive’s office.

“I don’t know what it is. I think there’s still that search going on about what the relationship should be.”

What they agree on

Both Culver and Heath are enthusiastic about the county’s airport and support spending and borrowing money to see it grow.

On the matter of fire services, none of the contenders showed determination to support the Salisbury Independent Fire Company, otherwise known as Station 13.

Culver explained the issue demanded the input of the county Chiefs Association and should not be made unilaterally by with the executive or the council.

Heath, a longtime volunteer firefighter in the Fruitland Fire Company, said the extra company was unneeded — reflecting the position of the Salisbury Fire Department who acted with Mayor Day and Heath to effectively oust city volunteers who complained about their treatment at Station 1.

While Culver and Heath said they support a poultry house air study (Culver pointed out the county Health Department has already conducted one) to address concerns of poultry house opponents and skeptics, neither has offered details.

Neither man has said much about public safety, Wor-Wic’s Tuition Scholarship Program, the Civic Center, Perdue Stadium, increasing Wor-Wic funding or the future of the county’s library system.

Culver has secured the funding for a new headquarters for the Sheriff’s Office.

Lately, Culver has touted his desires to see Pirates Wharf on Whitehaven Road developed into a camping park and Cedar Hill Park further developed in a similar fashion.

Heath, after having visited the governments of the county’s seven incorporated towns, has offered up an idea that those municipalities might pool money to make purchases such as a shared street sweeper.

Campaign fundraising

Campaign fundraising reports are not up to date but are due later this week.

They were a telltale in the 2014 election, when reports showed Culver raised thousands of dollars during summer campaign events, while the incumbent Rick Pollitt raised comparatively little.

Then, Culver’s donors could have been described as the “Who’s Who” of the county and the list was comprised of the community most stalwart Republicans.

Given Heath’s non-party background, where that money will go this time is anyone’s guess.

Both men are engaging in active campaigns and spending cash to get elected, posting yard signs, buying newspaper ads and appearing in TV commercials.

Culver has a name-recognition advantage in the county, given his election to the County Council at-large, his County Executive win and his many years as a local businessman, Realtor and developer.

Voting begins today

Early voting in Wicomico County begins Oct. 25 for the convenience of residents and continues until Nov. 1, allowing eight days to vote before the General Election on Nov. 6.

“Early voting in Maryland has proven to be a positive thing for both voters and Board of Elections officials,” said Anthony Gutierrez, Director of the Wicomico County Board of Elections.

The early voting center, in the Midway Room at the Wicomico County Youth & Civic Center, will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

The best days to vote while avoiding delays will be Saturday, Oct. 27 and Sunday, Oct. 28, Gutierrez said.

Eligible voters can register, and registered voters can make address changes, on those days.

Once requirements are met, the resident can complete or update registration, mark and tabulate the ballot at the early voting center.

 

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

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