Wicomico seems headed for capital spending challenges

Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis and his office have been on the planning list for a new Sheriff’s Public Safety Complex in west Salisbury for many years.

Weighed down by a health pandemic certain to negatively affect tax revenues next year, Wicomico County appears headed toward a borrowing ceiling that could delay or derail long-desired infrastructure projects.

The county’s longtime debt policy follows a guideline that it can only owe bond creditors an amount equal to 3.5 percent of overall county revenue. While property tax revenues are likely to remain stable for at least the next two years, income derived from “piggyback taxes” based on resident incomes is not.

With the Coronavirus epidemic contributing to job losses and reduced paychecks, revenues will likely go down — so borrowing will have to be reduced.

In their first major public endeavour as a financial team, Acting County Administrator John Psota and new Finance Director Pam Oland told County Council members that a complete re-examination of Wicomico’s capital spending plan is needed.

Oland said the problem became obvious when the estimated price tag for a new Public Safety Building to serve the Sheriff’s Office was found to be millions of dollars more than initially believed.

Finance Director Pam Oland.

Communication lapses related to the design team have been cited for what was believed to be a $10 million project actually on course to cost nearly $30 million.

Oland said that when she began to chart a schedule for funding the building, the borrowing challenges became apparent.

“We have to make a decision on the Public Safety Building,” said Psota, “but we don’t have all of the information we need to make a decision.”

Though no one can forecast how much revenues might decline, Psota and Oland said they have plugged a 5 percent decline into their estimations, which means capital spending would have to be curtailed.

In addition to the Public Safety Building, the county has several items on its capital list, including completion of Beaver Run Elementary, planning and initial construction of a new high school in Mardela Springs, county airport improvements and education building at Wor-Wic Community College.

Council members seemed concerned when hearing the news. Council Vice President John Cannon said the executive branch should meet with all of the parties with a stake in the capital plan, and return to the council so an amended plan can be considered. 

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