Wicomico keeps Wor-Wic scholarship plan alive

The Wicomico County Council unanimously adopted a $135.2 million fiscal 2017 budget on Tuesday night, and placed $252,000 in a contingency account to allow it more time to consider a tuition scholarship plan for Wor-Wic Community College students.

Last week at a legislative session, the council made an initial 5-2 vote to remove the Wor-Wic money from the budget. That action was criticized by County Executive Bob Culver, as well as community business leaders who had advocated the spending.

At Tuesday’s session, Council President John Cannon countered the money was never cut, but only transferred. The amount has been added as a contingency, he said.

The scholarships were strongly supported during public comments at the meeting by Ernie Colburn, Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, as well as Mike Dunn, the President and CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee.

Dunn and his members have been strong proponents of what is considered an economic development need for the county.

Several council members had said publicly that they needed more details about the Wor-Wic plan from Culver. The controversy seems to have been settled enough that discussions can continue — and money will be available if the council and executive decide to act.

Councilman Larry Dodd clarified that he supports education, and stressed the council is not against the scholarship program, as some might believe. Last week, Culver asserted that Dodd and others wanted too much say in how scholarship recipients should be chosen.

Culver’s plan — backed by Wor-Wic President Dr, Ray Hoy — would make funding available to all county high school graduating seniors who enroll at Wor-Wic.

The idea for the scholarship plan was launched in January, when Culver proposed spending $1.46 million on free tuition, with $252,000 being funded the first year, based on each student carrying 27 credits; $540,000 the second year, based on 27 credits; and $665,000 the third year, based on 27 credits for first and second-year students and 12 credits for third-year students.

The program is expected to eventually cost the county $665,000 annually.

After the budget vote, Councilman Marc Kilmer worried aloud that, because county spending has increased $9 million during the past two years, that the county is on a questionable track.

“This is unsustainable,” Kilmer said.

While he said he recognizes the Sheriff’s Office had to increase salaries to compete with other counties, and needed equipment, he said tough choices must be made when it comes to spending.

“We are setting ourselves up for a bad position. I don’t like to rain on anybody’s parade here, but I felt I needed to express my discomfort … some people say it’s not the council’s job to cut spending but it is our job. If people don’t like it, that’s fine. It’s a difference of opinion,” he said.

Councilman John Hall said the county has new challenges, such as poultry house regulations and education funding, and they will require commitment.

The spending plan also includes $140,000 for the council’s own budget, so it might hire a contractual attorney. Kilmer said the amount was too high and made a last-second motion to take $70,000 from that amount and carry it forward in the budget. The motion, though, failed by a 4-3 vote, with several council members saying they want to be sure funding is available  if needed.

Weeks ago, as he was preparing the budget, Culver questioned whether the council needed its own attorney.

Culver’s changes to the county’s Law Department have been consistently challenged by the council.

Under the County Charter, Culver cannot control the council’s expenses, but he made it clear he was not supportive.

The budget also funds the Board of Education, library and Wor-Wic Community College.

It contains a 3 percent raise for county employees and funding of the collective bargaining agreement with the Sheriff’s Office and FOP.

The Sheriff’s Office will have cash to purchase 10 new vehicles.

The county’s contribution to the school board’s budget will increase 1.21 percent to $52.44 million, including $10.5 million more in capital contributions.

There’s an additional $626,648 for the school board’s general fund, including increases in the state’s Maintenance of Effort formula.

The school board requested $42.5 million for general funds use and received $41.9 million.

The county school system’s budget proposal for the coming year is just under $200 million, up from about $191 million in the current year. While the county’s contribution to schools funding is less than 25 percent of the system’s total budget, schools spending is 43 percent of the county’s budget.

There’s more money for the MAC Center and Humane Society of Wicomico County. In the category of new spending, a budget item was included to address the county’s opioid addiction problem.

Cannon said Wicomico County is fortunate because there has been an increase in property values and revenues.

“We held back for many years because the revenue wasn’t there. All across the United States, everybody has been waiting for some kind of recovery. The important thing is that we are always fiscally responsible,” Cannon said.

As Tuesday’s meeting ended, he thanked those who attended, saying, “It’s nice to see a full room,” and assuring constituents that council members listen to their concerns.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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