Wicomico executive branch facing open posts, questions

Wicomico County’s executive branch problems are mounting, and the growing list of staffing questions and County Council spending roadblocks are beginning to hamper some county functions.

Wayne Strausburg.

With the announcement that county Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg would soon retire, and Strausburg’s deputy, Assistant Director Weston Young, is departing in two weeks, the list of challenges for County Executive Bob Culver is equally long and complex.

The county appears at risk of losing all functionality if concrete steps aren’t soon decided.

Law, Finance Departments

The county still has neither a council-approved Attorney, Finance Director or Human Resources Director in place. While there are people working in all three jobs, the ultimate legality of their actions is the subject of debate.

Because of this, the county has yet to go to the New York bond markets to secure cash for its big-ticket infrastructure needs, including cash for a new elementary school, airport improvements and various maintenance projects.

The deadline to get that money and keep projects advancing is imminent; the county would have to tap its reserves otherwise.

Specifically because of the Finance Director situation, the County Council has rejected several routine spending measures, declaring they cannot be approved because the Finance Director’s approval is not legally valid.

On March 3, a request to spend $1,050 toward gypsy moth spraying in the Johnson Road area was tabled on a 4-3 vote, as was a request for $72,000 to begin engineering planning for long-need repairs inside the historic County Courthouse, where the steam-heating system is leaking. In February, the council also delayed renovations to bathrooms at Cedar Hill Park.

When transferring funds around the county government, the duly appointed Finance Director has to declare the funds unencumbered. The reasoning is that — since the Finance Director hasn’t been duly appointed — the council might be engaging in a questionable action.

County Attorney Paul Wilber and Finance Director Michele Ennis are the leaders in question. 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.

On Friday, the council and executive met in a closed session with a lawyer/mediator to seek a resolution. Because of the session involved personnel discussions, however, there has been no word on what if any progress was made.

Strausburg, Young

Culver announced earlier this month that Strausburg would be retiring from county service, effective May 29. Hired after a long business management career by then-Executive Rick Pollitt, Strausburg has been tasked as overseeing the county’s departments and employees since February 2012. 

Culver has hinted several times since his 2016 election that he would one day have to replace the 72-year-old Strausburg, who has long said he was looking forward to retirement. But Culver’s announcement offered no clue about who might be a successor.

Weston Young.

“I am appreciative of the service rendered by Wayne to the citizens of Wicomico County and wish him well in his retirement,” was Culver’s only comment in a March 9 news release.

Last fall, Culver announced that Weston Young, whom Culver had elevated to Public Works Director early in 2017 and later moved over to serve as Strausburg’s No. 2, would be the point of contact on most executive branch matters, as Strausburg’s retirement was likely in 2020.

But Young confirmed Monday that he was departing Wicomico’s government for a similar post in neighboring Worcester County, effective Friday, April 3.

Young’s two-weeks notice would have to be seen as a stunning blow to any succession plans.

Strausburg’s position might well be the most important position in government — especially at this time of year. It is Strausburg who closely monitors tax revenues and government expenditures, all with an eye toward building a balanced and properly reflective fiscal spending plan.

Strausburg also works with lending experts to plan the county’s long-term borrowing for big-ticket capital projects. Lately, he has been developing ideas for generating future revenue sources, as the county operates under a property tax revenue cap, which limits tax increases as a way of producing additional revenue.

The Director of Administration also ensures discipline about the department heads, as well as working to ensure Wicomico’s government has a strategic plan and adequate financial reserves.

Culver battling illness

Complicating matters even further, Culver confirmed recently that he has been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer.

The 67-year-old executive reportedly received a first round of treatment last Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has made it clear that he will not step down and will continue in office while fighting the disease.

Culver said he received several blood transfusions as an infant and apparently contracted Hepatitis B. He said doctors at Peninsula Regional Medical Center diagnosed him with hepatocellular carcinoma, sometimes called hepatoma, and have referred him to Johns Hopkins.

Culver said about 70 percent of his liver is cancerous.

“I have received great medical advice and will see doctors at Hopkins,” Culver said. “I feel great and will continue working for the people of Wicomico County.”

Under sections 407 and 408 of the charter, in the event of the temporary absence or disability of the County Executive, the Director of Administration — a position held by Strausburg — shall perform the duties of the County Executive.

If the office becomes vacant, the County Council has 45 days to appoint a successor to serve until the 2022 election. That appointee would need to come from the executive’s political party — Culver is a Republican — and would have to meet the same qualifications for office as anyone who might seek the job.

Only the second person to ever hold the post in Wicomico, Culver has been an active leader known to engage in a seven-day work schedule.

With the County Executive literally battling for his life and the task list before him especially complicated — compounded by his disagreements with the council — the county could be viewed as being in a precarious leadership position.

Public Works

Another crucial county leader, Public Works Director Dallas Baker, announced his surprise resignation last month and his post is currently being advertised for hire.

Baker has been leading three major projects in the county — reconstruction of the Morris Mill Dam, flooding alleviation affecting county roadways and neighborhoods, and development of a sewer-needs assessment report to address failing residential septic systems countywide.

He was also the point man on upcoming public water extension to Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport and expansion of the county Brick Kiln Landfill.

His exit was not formally announced.

2021 Fiscal Budget

The next budget takes effect July 1, but a strict budget calendar includes many important dates in the meantime.

A public hearing to gather public input on the budget was slated for this Monday at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, but officials were still deciding to reschedule it, given public gathering restrictions related to the Coronavirus.

For this year, the executive is required by charter to submit the budget to the County Council by April 21. The council then has until June 1 make changes to be submitted back to the executive; the spending plan must be adopted no later than June 21.

Based on their announcements, both Strausburg and Young will be long gone by that time.

Spending roadblocks

Evidence of the assorted dysfunctions were on full public display March 3 when the council voted multiple times to table routine spending transactions and requests.

On one side, four council members repeatedly voiced their hesitancy to act; on the other, three council members made clear their discomfort with stalling county business. 

“We are at somewhat of a deadlock in Wicomico County, we recognize that,” said Council Vice President John Cannon, “but it is the law in Wicomico County that the Finance Director has to do (approve transactions).

“So, as long as we’re in a situation, where we don’t have a Finance Director, many things are going to come to a standstill. It’s unfortunate, but it really is the law and as a council we have to recognize that so that we are not culpable as well.”

Councilman Bill McCain disagreed.

“I don’t think we’re violating the charter by simply doing routine county business,” he said. “These internal transfers are about as routine as you can get. We can’t continue to hold the county at bay and not do county businesses.

“Some of these things are very time sensitive and need to be done,” McCain said. “Tabling these things makes a bad situation worse.”

Capital budget

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 had been stalled because Wicomico officials were awaiting more-definitive signals from the General Assembly on local funding for public education.

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 will not have its executive branch leadership in sufficient order to satisfy the bond traders.

Strausburg confirmed that in a tense meeting with the County Council on March 3.

“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.”

At the time, 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.

With his retirement announcement and his deputy’s announced resignation, however, the crisis point might have arrived.

Culver has said several times 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.

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