Appointments battle might imperil Wicomico borrowing

The potential ramifications of Wicomico County not having a duly appointed County Attorney and Finance Director became clearer in a public meeting last week.

The county’s second-ranking executive official, Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg admitted to County Council members that Wicomico’s ability to borrow money to fund capital projects was in jeopardy because the council had not approved County Executive Bob Culver’s designees for the law and finance posts.

The county has about $26 million in capital funding requests for the upcoming fiscal year, but not all of those projects will receive funding. The capital process has been stalled because Wicomico officials are awaiting more-definitive signals from the General Assembly, which could demand increased local funding for public education.

Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg.

Wicomico typically borrows about $10 million every year to finance big-ticket construction or repair projects. Traditionally, that money has come through bond sales orchestrated through Wall Street banking firms.

This year, the county might not have its Executive Branch leadership in sufficient order to satisfy the bond traders — a situation that came spilling out in Strausburg’s council remarks last Tuesday night.

“I wasn’t going to bring it up, but I’ll respond,” Strausburg said after council members repeatedly quizzed him about unusual delays in seeking annual borrowing. “The elephant in the room is that in order to pass any bond legislation, we need to certify that we have a duly appointed County Attorney and duly appointed Finance Director. It’s problematic.”

If the situation isn’t resolved, funding for projects already in the capital pipeline – including Beaver Run Elementary School construction and county airport improvements – could be affected.

Under their powers articulated in the County Charter, the council terminated County Attorney Paul Wilber last spring. However, he has continued serving in the Law Department role under a series of extensions that the council has publicly faulted.

Culver’s hire for Finance Director, former county Human Resources Director Michele Ennis, was never formally nominated for council approval as required by the charter. The council last spring took the extraordinary step of voting to not support her for the post, even though she wasn’t nominated.

Strausburg didn’t appear to be assigning blame to either his boss, Culver, or the council for the awkward situation – but made clear the standoff was nearing a crisis point.

He said he was consulting with bond attorney Lindsey A. Rader of the Baltimore law firm Funk & Bolton on whether the appointments situation was truly a borrowing roadblock.

“This is unfortunate, but the reality is we’re talking (with the bond attorney),” Strausburg said. “When we have a difference of opinion between the executive and the council as to whether those sitting appointees are, if you will, duly appointed, we can’t go to the (bond) market.”

Councilman Joe Holloway of Parsonsburg leapt quickly on Strausburg’s statement, declaring, “It’s not a difference of opinion between the County Council and the County Executive – it’s the charter.”

Culver has opined that assorted council-promoted and voter-affirmed charter amendments have wiped away the council’s review powers on top executive appointments.

Still, the charter makes clear the executive must submit department head reappointments within six months of an election, and await council approval. Culver has declined, arguing that only serves to politicize their jobs.

Strausburg said that one possible option would be to forward-fund critical projects from the county’s coffers, and then replenish the cash when the dispute is somehow resolved and borrowing could occur.

“Our major focus is keeping Beaver Run on track,” he said of the Old Ocean City Road project to which the county will need to contribute nearly $13 million in additional funding.

There is $7 million slotted for Beaver Run in this year’s capital plan. Strausburg said the school board needs that money by Dec. 1, so the “fail safe point” is approaching to secure those dollars.

Late last year, the council dispatched letters to local Circuit Court and District Court officials warning that Wicomico had no duly appointed County Attorney or Finance Director, and that the county could be on shaky legal ground if any legal cases came their way.

In January, the council tabled a somewhat minor transfer of funds for Cedar Hill Park in Bivalve because of the unapproved Finance Director’s involvement. That action has been interpreted as the council “drawing a line in the sand” that no business can be conducted until another appointment is made.

Strausburg’s admission of the appointments problem came after Councilman Bill McCain of Salisbury repeatedly wondered aloud why the county wasn’t stepping up efforts to engage bond traders, especially when officials are feeling pressure to finance a plan to build a new high school in Mardela Springs – the next major project in the pipeline.

“Why wouldn’t we be going to the bond market?” McCain asked. “This is a low interest rate environment. Gov. Larry Hogan is committed to funding more school construction than ever. People in Mardela want action.”

Strausburg said the Mardela Middle and High School project was still open to discussion and that – even though it had been removed from the current capital plan – Culver was still seeking a resolution.

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