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Commissioners’ priorities revealed in strategic plan

(April 24, 2015) During the winter Maryland Association of Counties meeting early this year, the Worcester County Commissioners developed a strategic plan for their priorities for this term, outlining what they believed to be the top priorities for 2015, which they adopted without comment on Tuesday.

Each commissioner assigned number values to a list of suggested projects. A top priority was given a score of 10, second was eight, third was six, fourth was four and fifth was two; but no names were assigned to scores when the list was made public for the first time this week. However, the number of votes cast for each item was also made public, so some insights into their thinking can be gleaned.

For example, the heading “more collaboration with the board of education on the capital improvement plan” received one vote with a 10 point score, meaning it was one of the board’s top priorities. Joining this is “Worcester County becomes a destination for seniors” and “tax differential agreement with municipalities.”

The items that received zero votes are also telling and include “municipalities to answer their own 911 calls,” “provide training opportunities for jobs in wind turbine support,” “dualize Route 90,” “provide countywide broadband internet” and “evaluate procedure for considering non-profit funding requests.” No commissioner thought these items were important enough to warrant support.

The top vote getter was to “replace Showell Elementary School with a cost-effective and affordable structure,” with 28 points and five votes.

According to the unsigned report to County Administrator Harold Higgins from Kelly Shannahan, assistant county administrator, the existing school requires “major health, safety and energy code upgrades.” This report states the estimate cost for the school to be $49 million before a state share of $3.2 million leaving $45.7 million, “which is unavailable at this time;” but it’s been reported that the cost of the school has crept up to as much as $52 million.

“Given that the new Ocean City Elementary School was constructed less than 10 years ago,” the report states, “at a total cost of roughly $18 million,” the commissioners hope alternatives can be agreed upon.

Tied for second place with 22 points and three votes each are design guidelines for the Route 50 corridor and developing an exit strategy for the Department of Liquor Control. The fear that “some desirable commercial development may have been discouraged by perceived uncertainty of approval,” owing to design guidelines adopted in 2009 based upon the 2006 Worcester County Comprehensive plan, has led the commissioners to move toward establishing a task force on the issue. The task force, the report explains, will review both the guidelines and comprehensive plan to establish if amendments are needed to encourage desirable economic development.

The commissioners may have set themselves an impossible task when simultaneously trying to achieve the goals of developing an exit strategy for a county department, liquidate its assets, yet somehow ensure a measure of pricing control and “wind down DLC operations with the least possible impact on DLC staff.” Three commissioners voted for this item.

Also tied are finding a plan for solid waste operations and the Pocomoke area industrial park. In 2010, according to the report, Ocean City stopped using the Central Landfill resulting in significant losses in tipping fee revenue. At the same time, fixed costs of operations remained, well, fixed. A new cell of the landfill will need to be constructed in the near future requiring the use of reserve funds, but the county has been dipping into those same reserves to meet the fixed cost of operations, according to the report. The goal of this entry is to develop a workable plan to cover operations and pay for capital improvements without going to bond.

The Pocomoke industrial park is comprised of roughly 100 acres and is the area designated for industrial growth in the county, according to the report. Along with current businesses there is a “small business incubator facility” and a 42,000 square foot building that previously housed the Mid-Atlantic Institute for Space and Technology. About 30 acres are still available for development. Yet the commissioners desire to partner with the town to construct a facility between 20,000 and 25,000 square feet on the chance to “attract additional industrial tenants to the Pocomoke area.”

This speculative facility edged out items such as increasing government transparency, protecting farms and agriculture, a countywide economic development plan and more medical curricula at the technical high school.


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