Rick Pollitt: Government is a tool to build community

For Rick Pollitt, the past four years have been “the new normal.”

Wicomico County’s economy followed the national economy into the tank. Because the housing industry plays such a huge factor in the county’s economic performance — and because the housing industry has been among the slowest sectors to recover nationwide, recession-like conditions have held on here longer.

Pollitt, seeking a third term as county executive, wants a chance to lead in an improved economic climate.

Rick Pollitt“After going through the worst economic time since the Great Depression, I would really like to have this opportunity to put things in place,” he says in an interview in his third-floor office of the Government Office Building downtown.

Cuts in state funding and the ebbing of property tax revenues, much of it driven by lower housing assessments, crippled governments which had become used to escalating revenues.

“When the economy was strong, when there was growth and development, we all knew it couldn’t last,” Pollitt says. “But nobody — really nobody — could have predicted we’d have the biggest economic crisis in decades. Monday Morning Quarterbacking or not, no one could have planned for that.”

The next-day-quarterbacking refers to Pollitt’s opponent, Bob Culver, who has suggested the county — and Pollitt — should have better-prepared for the economic setbacks.

Regardless, Pollitt takes pride in his handling of county finances and leadership during the downturn that saw freezes in county pay and hiring, reductions in county services, furloughs and a near-stoppage to road and infrastructure repairs.

“A lot of difficult decisions were made during difficult time,” Pollitt says.

While the Allen native refuses to sing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” he does say the signs are pointing to better times. Whether those times come or not, Pollitt says he has very definite plans concerning how the county should operate.

The executive is putting a great deal of emphasis on his Regional Visioning Process report, a detailed plan conceived more than two years ago and containing intentions for improvements in seven areas.

Pollitt presented it earlier this month, saluting its contributions from the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, Wor-Wic Community College, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Salisbury University and the Tri-County Council.

Areas targeted for enrichment are economic development, city-county synergy, education, transportation, watershed protection, agricultural preservation and healthy communities.

“Now what I tell people is that we weren’t idle during the recession,” he says. “We’ve taken advantage of the lull in activity to kind of do a community assessment of who we are, where we want to go.”

Pollitt said that city-county political cooperation — or the historic lack there of — was a consistent topic coming from work sessions and focus groups.

“People clearly wanted to see more city and county cooperation, which is almost a no-brainer, but it validated a problem most of us knew existed.”

The visioning process also delved into the balances that go with taxing and cutting.

“They also concluded you can’t tax your way to prosperity,” Pollitt says, “but you also can’t continue to slash services and stay competitive as a place to come and do business.

“The finding was that really need to focus on economic development.”

The need for greater attention and economic development are areas that Pollitt and Culver share agreement. Pollitt, as the office-holder, says he has stakeholders vetting ideas.

“We put our vision action team together, where we brought in decision-makers from all around, and we talked about how to beef up our economic development plan. There are things we’ve already started doing: We need to see how we can better utilize our assets, like the Port (of Salisbury). We are working an a comprehensive plan about how to develop and enhance the whole port processes. There are opportunities there.”

Pollitt also says the county’s airport has greater potential.

“We have a great airport that everybody (in the entire region) uses. It is a wonderfully underutilized asset. So how can we build and mold that into economic relationships?”

He adds: “And there are many thing we can do as we team city and county.”

Pollitt has a task list — one that exceeds the normal management functions — that he says he’ll pursue if re-elected:

  • Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development. “If you’re putting your eggs in an economic development basket,” says Pollitt, “you need more than a one-man operation. I want to sit down with the SWED Board of Directors and talk about how to recreate the whole concept.”
  • Tackle the county’s two growing health problems: mental health care and heroin addiction. “The heroin situation is an epidemic. The state has cut mental health funding. These are real problems. We put money in the budget this year to keep one of the programs going, but it needs so much more.”
  • Manage through the continued difficult economy. “We want to come out of the recession. We are not fully recovered yet. The recession is lingering in Wicomico because we were so heavily dependent on the construction industry.”
  • Work with the state on environmental issues. “We really have to maintain effective engagement with Annapolis on these environmental regulations, including this phosphorus management and these tier maps and septic regulations. It’s overwhelming. I can understand why people are calling this ‘the War on Rural Maryland.’”

Pollitt ruffles a bit when discussing his opponent’s statements on the county neither acting like or business or making itself business friendly.

“Our approach to business includes a decoupling of the tax rates and gradually getting rid of the inventory tax,” he says. “It’s something we’re always thinking about and working on.”

And about running the government like a business?

“This may sound a bit patronizing,: he says, “but you and I wouldn’t walk into PRMC, to the operating room, and attempt to do brain surgery on somebody. Nor would I go into H&R Block and try to figure out somebody’s corporate income tax. And yet anyone thinks they can run for public office and run the government.

“The government is a $130 million business. Now it’s a nonprofit business. We’re not there to make money — we’re there to provide a service. But like a business, you still have to meet a payroll, you have to budget, you have to decide what your resources are and how you’re going to best allocate them to provide the services people expect from you.”

He adds: “You have to have an understanding of how the government works. You can apply business practices in how you manage and how you handle your money, but it is a whole different job that you’re doing.”

Some of the county’s spending practices have been decried as wasteful, but Pollitt says there is constant proof that the things are right and tightly managed.

“If you’re concerned about how we’re handling the public’s fiscal house, just look at Wall Street. They’ve upgraded our bond rating twice since I’ve been in office,” he says.

“A lot of people’s eyes glaze over on that, but by having a higher credit rating it costs us less money when we have to borrow money (for big projects),” Pollitt says. “Look at Bennett Middle School — we’ve saved more than $5 million because of the recent upgrade we had. So there is a business principle involved.”

Some people in the community have wondered aloud what the county executive has kept to a low-profile in an election season.

“I’ve never been a good politician. I’ve just always thought of myself as wanting to do good,” he says. “That’s sounds like a politically trite thing, I know. I hate electioneering, I hate the self-promotion. I can work for you — I can advocate for and help sell you or anybody I believe in — I have trouble doing that for me.”

Pollitt also resents the “career politician” label he’s been given.

“My career has been about getting people to understand and to be engaged,” he says. “I recoil when people say I’m a career politician and I’m out of touch.

“About the government — we are the government. All of us are the government. It’s not us against them. It’s not some mindless bureaucratic machine that’s invading our privacies and invading our lives.

“Government is a tool , it’s a resource to build our community and make it what we want it to be,” he says. “All the people — everyone — can use that tool and help make it all work.”

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

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