Council questions economic development budget

A few sparks flew at the Wicomico County Council work session on economic development Thursday morning, after Councilman Marc Kilmer questioned progress of economic development in the past year.

A little more than a year ago, County Executive Bob Culver pitched the council his ideas for promoting economic development, which included hiring a business development director and opening an office in Downtown Salisbury.

Kilmer, during discussions on the fiscal 2017 budget, observed that — still — no director has been hired, but office was rented and paid for, along with utilities.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg said the county rented a building across the street from the government building for space for an economic development director and the  public-private Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Inc., known as SWED.

But Councilman Joe Holloway pointed out that SWED never agreed to be housed there. Strausburg countered there had been discussion, but that the city has now leased that space.

“When the county proposed this it made perfect sense. It would have reduced the SWED occupancy cost … When we first discussed it they were all for it, then they backed away from it,” Strausburg said.

Holloway said he’s on the SWED board and the plan was for SWED to be semi-involved.

Council President John Cannon said the amount spent was about $204,500.

Kilmer suggested cutting funding, since nothing significant was accomplished.

County Executive Bob Culver said he took full blame for the rent and utilities costs.

About $145,000 of the $204,500 is the county’s annual contribution to SWED; $22,000 was spent on the office rental, but Public Works employees also occupied some of that rented space. Culver maintains the possibly wasted rental allocation amounts to about $15,000.

“We rented it and it didn’t work out. But I’m not going to create another whole department and make 14 departments in the county instead of 13,” he said.

Cannon disagreed, saying hiring an economic development director isn’t causing government to grow, but simply a potentially worthwhile hiring. “It’s good to have a separate department. It makes it more accountable,” Cannon said.

Faced with the suggestion of a budget cut, Strausburg was adamant about the county hiring an economic development director.

“If we’re serious about economic develop you’ve got to have somebody every day breathing it and reporting to Wicomico County,” he said.

Holloway asked if, in a full year, the right applicant could be found.

“Nope,” Strausburg said.

In two cases, the salary wasn’t acceptable to the applicant, but Strausburg said he would like to advertise again.

“You don’t throw good money after bad,” Kilmer said.

“I understand it is a new year and there are new plans. But you’ve had a year. I think the only economic develop spending of this department was a couple billboards,” Kilmer  said.

“It was full of promise a year ago and now we look at the results. You can kind of see my heartburn about funding it again,” Kilmer said.

“I think we should be glad we didn’t waste the money,” Culver said. “I don’t know if you want blood or not. I just admitted I made a mistake. We didn’t waste any money.”

The County Council can only cut the executive’s budget; they cannot add to it.

The council has until June 1 to adopt a budget. Last year’s fiscal 2016 budget came in at $129 million. The county’s property tax rate is $0.9516 per $100 of assessed property value.

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