Wicomico Council seeks to cut executive’s office budget

Wicomico Council members knew they were venturing down an awkward budget road last week when they discussed cutting County Executive Bob Culver’s inter-office spending plan by a whopping $85,000.

Then, while repeatedly pausing to make mention of their predicament, they plowed ahead anyway.

The seven-member legislative branch met last Thursday to go through the county’s fiscal 2020 spending plan for one of its final passes. The council has already met with various department heads to quiz them on their spending requests, which have been formally presented by the County Executive.

Under the Wicomico Charter, the council can cut the budget but not add to it. It can move some monies around, but generally can only recommend to the executive branch that it increase spending in certain departments.

After meeting with Recreation & Parks Department leaders, the council turned to a potentially sensitive and awkward budget category: the County Executive’s Office.

With conflicts between the council and executive at an all-time high, council members interfering in Culver’s office spending might be the political equivalent of handling plutonium.

The Charter is not equal to that part of the budget arrangement: The council sets its own office budget, which the executive cannot touch.

Thursday’s session was made more awkward in that council members had no one from Culver’s office on hand to answer their questions. Council President John Cannon announced that Deputy Administrative Director Weston Young had informed the council’s secretary that he had been instructed not to attend the budget hearing.

In an amused tone, Councilman Marc Kilmer told Cannon: “We can still cut the budget. They (the executive) has forfeited the opportunity to advise against cuts.”

Cannon said he wanted to make clear that the council cuts-discussion “not be seen as retaliatory.”

“We have questions and there’s no one here to answer them,” said Cannon, “so we’re in the dark, but still have decisions that must be made.”

In the 2020 spending plan, Culver is seeking to spend $784,636, with $436,279 going to salaries.

On Thursday, the council zeroed in on other areas in Culver’s office budget – contractual services ($25,000) and community promotion ($20,000). Members complained they didn’t know exactly what sort of spending occurred in those categories.

Kilmer went so far as to label the community promotions category “a slush fund.”

Culver has also placed a new hire in his budget – a $40,000 annual salary for a Public Information Officer. Culver has faced some criticism for not always communicating his intentions; the county has virtually no social media presence.

The council would ax that request.

“I can’t justify a PIO full time,” said Council Vice President Larry Dodd. “What are they going to do when they’re not writing press releases?”

Council members also found consensus to cut $15,000 from projected legal expenses in the county Elections Office, making their day’s reductions total at $100,000.

The council seemed to have consensus to divert the $100,000 to three areas: the National Folk Festival, the county’s Roads Department and the county library system.

On the Folk Festival, the county last year made in-kind contributions to aid the September event, but wasn’t a cash sponsor. The council recommended giving the event $10,000.

“It has always concerned me that the county doesn’t have a greater role in that event,” Cannon said.

County-wide flooding issues have topped the constituents’ complaints list, so the council would give $75,000 more to road repairs, ditch maintenance and tree trimming. The budget has Roads Department spending being reduced, primarily because officials have struggled to fill more than a dozen open staff positions.

The library submitted a flat-spending budget, but Kilmer – who serves as the council’s liaison to the library – said employee benefits expenses were higher and the library could use the $15,000 in suggested additional funds.

Politics didn’t seem to play much of a factor in Thursday’s discussions, but the ongoing battle concerning the structure of government did. While the council has a solid Republican majority and Culver is a Republican, the caution flags were waved entirely by Democratic Councilman Bill McCain.

Referring to the recent tensions between the legislative and executive branches in interpreting the County Charter, McCain urged caution in possibly escalating any conflicts.

“The county is not getting the best publicity as we sit here today,” he said, “and whatever the root cause is isn’t the point.

“If we start taking stuff from within the executive’s budget in the middle of this whole turmoil … whew,” he concluded.

“This will raise questions about increases in our own spending,” McCain added later. “You know this is going to create more negative publicity because the one thing we handled was the executive’s budget.”

Kilmer reminded McCain that council spending had increased mostly because the body had needed to hire its own attorney and add to the auditing staff which it oversees.

McCain also questioned why the council was devoting time to arguing about minor budget items in a spending document totaling nearly $150 million.

“There are no glaring issues with the budget,” he said. “Education and public safety are fully funded, and they are all but 20 percent of the budget. How much do we want to micromanage smaller departments?”

He concluded: “We should move on the budget and move on, unless someone has something glaring. I don’t think we should move something just because we can.”

Said Kilmer of the council actions: “Our response is it’s not punitive. It’s that there are bigger needs that we are trying to address.”

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

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