(Oct. 31, 2014) As mayor of Crisfield during Superstorm Sandy, Percy Purnell has seen some things.
He’s not overly tall, not overly slim with prominent front teeth, watery eyes and a wave of hair that might catch a person up in its tide, but when he talks – quietly, sternly and with purpose – people listen. He’s thoughtful and measured while still appearing excited and energetic, and seems prepared for Election Day to finally arrive.
When it inevitably comes, Purnell stands ready to either serve or retire back to Crisfield, a choice he’d made once before, earlier in the year.
“If you had addressed me six months after [Sandy], I probably had lost my taste for politics. I had never been in combat – I was in the military, the Air Force for 4 years, I’ve seen people who had been in combat and there’s that blank stare that you get because you just get overwhelmed with problems, and fear is probably the best way to describe it,” he explained.
It’s not hard to imagine why. Though the town was well aware that the storm was coming, the warnings indicated 50 mph winds and maybe two feet of storm surge. Purnell estimates wind speeds at double that, consistent with Sandy’s Category 2 status when reaching the mid-Atlantic region, and storm surge of five feet, which matches other published reports.
“I don’t think any small town is really prepared for that. It’s just overwhelming,” he said.
Wading through three feet of water to get to his home, Purnell was in meetings, command centers and various other places pulling 18-hour shifts for three days.
“The interesting sideline is I never found my boots. I had tennis shoes with no socks,” he recalled.
Purnell then remembered his friend.
“Senator Mathias was probably the biggest release valve I had. He got the state involved to a phenomenal level, the feds to a phenomenal level. He was really the elected official, along with Governor O’Malley, that brought me through it; that brought the city through it,” he said.
Sandy hit Crisfield as the town, like so many others, was still dealing with the shock of the 2008 financial catastrophe.
“The 2008 collapse of the economy really hit small towns. I finally lost about $175,000 in tax revenue because property was just demolished to the point where devaluation was there,” Purnell said.
The shortfall eventually led to a tax increase of $.17 per $100 of assessed value approved June 5, 2014. The town needed to raise taxes at least $.11 per $100 to meet the constant yield rate, but an overrun at the sewer plant, the decreased tax revenue and an increase in insurance rates forced Purnell and the city council’s hands. The tax increase was reported to fund the police department.
Purnell said he went seven years without a tax increase, and served as city manager for four years without additional salary to save money for the town. The State of Maryland website only goes back to 2009 without, but available reports confirm the real property tax rate of Crisfield remained constant at $.70 per $100 until 2014.
His most recent term as mayor is actually the second time he’s held the office, having served from 1985-86 and then again beginning in 2006. Purnell said he didn’t run for the mayor’s office again having made up his mind to pursue a delegate’s seat. Training for managing not just one rural town, but a hefty chunk of the state, came both from previous elective office and from his career, which spanned decades and reached across the globe.
Starting as an electronics technician, Purnell worked for various companies in increasingly responsible capacities until he retired a few years ago at the director level. He dealt with clients internationally, federally and locally, and said his strength is finding common ground with each side of the story, and using that to broker a compromise.
Wind power in Somerset County is especially controversial, but Purnell personally led the charge, writing grants himself.
“I sat and went through every bill we were paying and ran across a $25,000-$35,000 electric bill, primarily sewer plant, so I went looking,” he said.
He decided solar power wasn’t a good fit since it took up a lot of real estate and didn’t generate enough energy.
“I went back to the Department of Environment and pleaded my case for a grant and got one,” Purnell said. “I went to Community Development Block Grant for engineering and land and I got it. The foundations are in now, and the turbines are supposed to arrive in the December-January timeframe and go up for 750 kilowatts, 300 feet tall.”
Purnell expects to save about 10 percent of his annual budget, roughly $300,000, by using wind power, but doesn’t promise no animal will ever get caught up in the turbines. He also said he took the town’s decibel meter (usually used to monitor noise levels in response to complaints) to the sewer plant and found the output, at about 60 dB, to be about the same as what the turbines would generate. The turbines are supposed to be installed near the sewer plant.
“According to the laws of energy, if you add 60 dB to 60 dB you don’t come out with 120, you come out with 63 dB,” he said.
Without going into the formulae, two completely different decibel calculators corroborate Purnell’s numbers. Low-frequency sounds from turbines have also been criticized, but Purnell maintains the sewer plant is producing “tons of low frequency.”
“You can hallucinate anything you want, I just don’t see the case,” he said.
Purnell describes himself as hands-on, and the experience from serving as city manager as well as concurrently handling the responsibilities as mayor reinforces his own assessment. He believes in hard work, finding solutions and not complaining.
“I spent 20 years in D.C. and the corporate world. I’ve seen just about every angle or methodology of accomplishing a task. I understand how things get done and I understand why they get done. These kinds of activities take understanding, background and perseverance. You can’t just go to Annapolis and sit in meetings. You can’t come away with a statement of ‘I was up there but I couldn’t do anything because there are more of them than there are of us,’ I don’t buy that crap,” he said.
His solution is another question.
“Once you’re in you’re in, you’re going to be there for four years, so why not get together and accomplish something?”
Purnell is not the only one wondering.