Culver reports Wicomico in ‘great shape’

County Executive Bob Culver pronounced Wicomico “in great shape” in his 2016 State Of The County Report.

The lengthy document, written in a conversational, friendly manner and released before Christmas, focuses on several areas of county government, highlighting successes and looking optimistically toward the future.

Overall for FY 2016, revenue was up by $8.6 million and expenses about $4.3 million less than budgeted, even with a 2.5 percent across the board budget cut for operation expenses.

“As a result, we were able to return more than $7 million to the county’s reserve fund. The unanticipated funds will enable the county to ramp up our efforts to rehabilitate our infrastructure and aging assets,” Culver wrote.

“We continue to look for ways to curb spending and rethink how county government operates and our conservative fiscal management is paying off,” he wrote.

Among specific successes:

Employment

Employment is at the highest it’s ever been, with 53,547 people working in July, up about 3.4 percent from a year ago.

“As a result, income taxes in the county were up about $7 million more than was budgeted this year,” Culver wrote.

Income from taxes

Property taxes were higher, too, more than $750,000 from what was budgeted, even though the County is in the fourth year of its inventory tax phase-out. Recordation taxes were up more than $489,000 from what was projected.

For the first time, Wicomico County’s finance department is collecting recordation taxes instead of the Clerk of the Court, resulting in big savings for the county.

Previously, Culver explained, the recordation tax was “funneled through the state, which kept a 5 percent fee and then sent the remaining 95 percent back to the county.

“This one simple change to how we collect recordation taxes has meant a significant new revenue source,” he wrote.

Credit rating

Concerning the credit rating, Culver said the count sold $20.3 million in general obligation bonds at the “extremely low true interest rate” of 2.089 percent.

Three projects are for the Wicomico County Board of Education, including $7.5 million for West Salisbury Elementary School construction project; $539,000 for projects at Parkside High School; and $161,000 for a new roof at Wicomico Middle School.

Other projects include $11 million for a new EMS radio system for all first responders including police agencies and fire companies to be able to communicate; and $1.1 million for the renovation of the new Board of Elections building.

Impact fees

In 2016, the fees were eliminated, a move Culver called for from the time he was elected. The elimination of the fee will help offset the state mandated installation of sprinklers in new homes.

Tax sale

The county did not have a tax sale this year, choosing instead to try to collect what was owed. Not having the sale saved taxpayers about $75,000 in advertising and auctioneer costs, staff time and money. And, a more customer-friendly approach was taken, the County Executive wrote.

“One commercial property owner has finally paid all delinquent taxes for the first time in over a decade. To date, we have collected $3.8 million more in real estate taxes than this time last year,” he wrote.

Because the county is required by law to have a tax sale every two years, there will be one in 2017.

Law Department

In October 2015, Attorney Paul Wilber was hired on a contractual basis.

“The growing cost of salaries and benefits in that department was getting expensive. In 2015, the county spent $430,542 on the Legal Department ($302,977 in salaries and $127,565 in benefits). I am pleased to report that we have achieved significant savings as a result of contracting out these services.

“Our attorney’s bills are averaging $23,000 per month, resulting in a net savings of about $154,000 for the county this year. In addition, we moved the office of the Local Management Board into the old Legal Department office space and saved outside rent of $30,000 a year. Any time you can enjoy a service with the same results and expertise as before but save over $184,000, I think they call that a win-win situation,” Culver wrote.

Wicomico Economic Impact Scholarship.

Offering eligible students free tuition to Wor-Wic Community College will help them “find a pathway to success” and ensure a fully trained workforce, Culver wrote.

“It’s already having a positive impact in the lives of our youth and it will continue to grow and leave a lasting legacy in our county for years to come,” he wrote.

Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism

During fiscal year 2016, the impact of tourism in the county grew by 12 percent, from $47.8 million to $53.3 million.

Wicomico County hosted 49 tourism events, drawing more than 125,000 people and requiring more than 33,000 hotel rooms.

DMVelite, the current partner for the Governor’s Challenge, brought 35 teams to the June event. Laxapalooza, a new partner, launched a summer lacrosse tournament with 18 teams, Culver said.

New website.

Launched was WicomicoTourism.org, complimented with a redesign of the annual Visitor’s & Relocation Guide with a distribution of 25,000.

Wicomico Youth & Civic Center

Among changes is the sale of alcoholic beverages.

The Normandy Arena has been renovated with motorized lower telescopic risers, new seats, LED lighting in the aisles, upper seating and safety handrails.

The County invested $2 million in new ADA seating in the upper bowl.

Cedar Hill Aquaculture Center at Cedar Hill Park & Marina was opened and includes crab peeler displays and an oyster nursery, which grew 220,000 oyster spat. The center hosted more than 500 students and campers during field trips as part of the Adventure Education program.

An adult softball program began and includes Men’s Modified softball, adding more than 50 players to the program, with plans to add a Women’s Fast Pitch League next spring.

The Parks Division installed engineered wood fibers under play structures, constructed a new softball Field No. 3 at Winterplace Park to include irrigation and dugout roofs, rebuilt field No. 4 infield and installed irrigation at East Wicomico Little League.

Upgrades to parks include painting trim on pavilions and play equipment, repairing roof shingles and guttering, painting park signage, replacing bleacher board and making bench repairs.

Grants

In February, the County applied for funds under the State of Maryland Rural Legacy Program and received $1.3 million.

In June, the County applied for funds under the Community Development Block Grant Program and was awarded $300,000 to assist homebuyers with their first purchases.

In August 2015, the County adopted updated maps and procedures under the National Flood Insurance Program to allow residents and businesses to qualify for flood insurance.

In March, Culver hosted a community forum and invited input on the poultry industry.

Work on the County Comprehensive Plan continued, with regular work sessions to help prepare finalization with the executive and Council. Adoption is on track for 2017.

Road work

Crews resurfaced 143.4 miles of roads used more than 550 tons of hot mix asphalt to patch roadways.

Some roads received major upgrades, including Morris Leonard Road. There, several storm water pipes were replaced and the road was widened and paved. On Rockawalkin Road, storm water inlets were installed, as well as pipes to improve drainage.

Several major projects were completed in 2016, including two large storm water pipes and rehabilitation to an existing concrete spillway on Quantico Creek Road and large storm water pipes on San Domingo Road.

The county’s masonry crew rebuilt and rehabilitated approximately 15 storm water inlets.

Recycling

Revenue increased by 6.5 percent from 2015 to 2016. This year, seven new recycling bins were purchased.

Infrastructure improvements

In July 2015, the county hired local architect Tom Hayes to assess county-owned and maintained assets.  Culver said he is putting together a comprehensive report to help guide long-term maintenance of facilities.

Courthouse restoration

One important capital project has been the restoration of the Courthouse, built in 1878, just 11 years after the county was established.

About $750,000 was invested to “bring it back to its former glory,” Culver said.

It should be completed next year, in time for the county’s 150th birthday.

Board of Elections

The county this year decided to relocate the Board of Elections and purchased the former Shinn’s paint store on Snow Hill Road. It will open in 2017.

Minor league baseball

Renovation of Shorebirds stadium involved tearing up old grass, removing about 18 inches of soil, adding a drainage system to the field then putting down new soil and sod.

“As a result, the team faced no rain-outs this year,” Culver said.

New stadium lights were installed, as well as padding on walls and fences to protect players.

When the season ended, work began to replace seating, including bleachers with individual seats. A new video and scoreboard will be installed before the 2017 season.

Airport

“The Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport continues to move forward with the completion of a $9 million upgrade to Runway 523,” Culver wrote.

The upgrade will allow heavier loads.

Work is under way on a miniature master plan required by the FAA to examine the impact of Piedmont airlines’ Embraer regional jets.

Planning has begun to accommodate the jets and will require a 600-foot extension on Runway 1432.

Culver signed an agreement with Salisbury Mayor Jake Day to extend city water and sewer to the airport to boost future economic development and incorporate the property into an Enterprise Zone.

“We are also exploring options for a pilot school with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to help funnel good pilots to Piedmont airlines and other regional carriers that are experiencing a pilot shortage,” Culver said.

The airport unveiled a fresh Website and logo. Marketing initiatives with American Airlines strengthened the partnership. Inside the terminal, an HVAC system was installed and a new baggage belt system is almost complete.

Heroin and opioid abuse

Culver said he’s pleased 2016 marked the beginning of “seamless information sharing between all law enforcement agencies, paramedics and the Wicomico County Health Department” about the problems of heroin and opioid abuse.

Thanks to use of Naloxone, and training for how to use it, fatal overdoses have decreased, Culver said.

He called the Community Outreach Addictions Team one of the greatest achievements. Known as COAT, it launched in June and is composed of recovered opioid addicts working to help the suffering addict obtain necessary services.

The group assisted more than 80 addicts in five months, in cooperation with Peninsula Regional Medical Center and law enforcement agencies.

Wicomico County Detention Center

The detention center established a grant-funded treatment program for eligible individuals to receive outpatient treatment after they are released. Vivitrol, a time-released medication lasting 30 days, is administered. It suppresses cravings for opiates and blocks the brain receptors so the user does not feel the euphoric high associated with use, Culver explained.

Each month about 20 inmates with a history of opiate use are provided with an orientation to the program.

Sheriff’s Office

Culver praised the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office, under the leadership of Sheriff Mike Lewis, for doing “an outstanding job protecting our community with a professional force of men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day.”

“We have just completed a five-year collective bargaining agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police that will provide disability benefits for deputies as well as competitive salaries that will help ensure that our best trained law enforcement officers will stay in our county to protect and to serve,” Culver said.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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