(Jan. 6, 2023) There’s plenty of work ahead for the Worcester County Commissioners in 2023 that’s sure to feature plenty of change.

Big price tags are on the horizon, including the Kirwan Commission’s imminent and unfunded Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education plan. 

There are also calls to figure out “economic drivers,” as Commissioner Joe Mitrecic put it, in lieu of the now-defunct athletic complex project.

All the while, Democrat Wes Moore is set to assume the governorship in Annapolis this month. 

“We’re going to have to keep an eye on that,” said Commissioner President Chip Bertino. “We have a change in administration at the governor level and so the county, we don’t know what the new governor’s objectives and priorities are going to be as they relate to Worcester County. It’s certainly an unknown.”

Bertino stressed that he is nonetheless optimistic about dealing with all the change, pointing to the two “new, energetic and engaged” commissioners, Eric Fiori and Caryn Abbott. 

“We have, I think, really good leadership with our Chief Administrative Officer Weston (Young) and Candace (Savage) as deputy. I think we have a good team in place to face these issues in a succinct and cogent way.”

But Bertino also said the county will have to keep an eye on other new members of the General Assembly.

“As I think, we’re always concerned about mandates, decisions promulgated by state legislature,” he said. “This coming term, there are additional progressive legislators who will be coming to the state legislature. Who knows … what legislation would come down here that will negatively impact our county? We always seem to be at the bottom of the hill as things roll down. We’re having to find ways to fund some of the more, what I would consider, unnecessary mandates and decisions foisted upon us. We continue to be concerned about that.”

Speaking of the Kirwan Commission, Fiori said the mandate will be a “huge ask” for the county.

“The expose and the bearing it’ll have on our budget (is a concern),” Fiori said. “We don’t have a number yet, but it’ll be a substantial burden on the budget … As a more rural county that funds our schools significantly on the backs of our local taxpayers and state dollars, it’s a large concern and a one-size-fits-all package (for all counties and) is a large concern (for a smaller one).”

Mitrecic said that the county school system will need a “tremendous amount of money” to meet the mandate.

“That’s my main focus, the budget this year, being able to give raises and keep employees,” he said. “We have a tremendous turnover of employees. Seems every (commissioners) meeting we have employees leaving and we’re trying to hire employees in other areas. It’s a revolving door almost with the employees due to the fact that everything is so good out in the public sector. The money is flowing so much more freely out there.”

Mitrecic noted that inflation has negated much of the raises employees were given last year, thus it’s on the commissioners to figure out a way to once again provide financial relief for the people who keep the county’s lights on. 

“Hopefully we can bring them up closer to where we are as far as inflation goes and at last they’re on a level playing field,” he said.

The commissioners are also focusing on the continued pursuit of other projects, including broadband connectivity and funding solution for EMS and Fire services.

“These are priorities we established and continue to move on those fronts,” Bertino said. “Those are strong issues that are top of mind for the commissioners looking forward. We’re looking to continue ensuring that the services we provide our residents are the best they can be and that they’re consumer-friendly. We have to continue moving along those lines. We certainly have the budget process beginning in the next six weeks or so. That’ll occupy a lot of our time for the first part of the year.”

Mitrecic said that he continues to work with a committee that includes Fire and EMS officials from around the county to brainstorm new ideas.

One of the challenges they’ve identified is the diminishing incentive to pursue volunteer positions.

“The cost of emergency services throughout the county continues to rise as our volunteer groups start to diminish,” Mitrecic said. “There’s less interest in being a volunteer now. People are busy with life and they don’t have the time. The training is so much more (involved) now and there are a lot of things working against us there. So we need to find a funding source for the EMS emergency medical response throughout the county.”

An effective solution could free up a considerable amount of the budget, Mitrecic added.

Commissioner Jim Bunting said that he’s looking forward to determining where revenues will stand.

“Last year’s budget we had an increase of revenues of quite a bit, (around) $5 million or $6 million. We wound up spending that on top of the previous budget plus taking another X-amount of millions out of the general fund and funding a pretty big budget. I’m hoping we can all work together with whatever increase of revenue we have and limit our spending to that.”

One possible economic driver is the continued pursuit of a room tax cap increase legislation at the state level.

Last year, the bill stalled when it became clear that the Worcester County delegation needed the approval of its fellow code counties, or counties with commissioners, on the Eastern Shore — Kent, Caroline and Queen Anne’s — and thus would require more time.

“We never stopped doing that,” Mitrecic said. “Weston has been working with (the other counties) to get them to sign on with us so we can go ahead and get the ability to raise the room tax a penny. That’s just what Ocean City has requested. This is what I support and if OC decides to raise the room tax a penny in the future, I would support that also, as long as they ask for it.”

Would he have the support of his fellow commissioners? 

“That’s up for discussion,” said Fiori. 

A lot of the legwork on room tax legislation, while in the purview of the county, must be handled by Del. Wayne Hartman (R-38C) and State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) in Annapolis. 

Hartman pointed out that the decision from the county commissioners will need to be unanimous to advance legislation.

“Bertino expressed some interest in talking more about it with his colleagues because of needs we’re seeing in our county for different things,” Hartman said. 

“This is not a tax increase for my constituents at all. This allows the county and city to increase room tax so our tourists are paying for the expenses — public safety, law enforcement, public works, keeping things clean, maintaining government property. This is a way to allow our tourists to pay for the expenses related to tourism. I think it’s a win for our constituents if we get this done.”

Both Hartman and Mitrecic stressed that legislation would not mandate the code counties to raise their room tax thresholds, but allow them the possibility to raise it a penny in the future if inclined.

It all comes back to the budget, Bunting said.

“The budget is the biggest thing, making sure we treat our employees, the (Worcester County) Board of Education right,” he said. “That is a big one and it’s going to be a difficult one to do possibly if the economy takes any worse dives.”

Looking at the county’s economic growth, Bunting said he’s satisfied with the northern end’s output, but he’d like to see more in the southern half.

“Ocean City can’t really stand any more people. You can’t get in there now with areas around it tied up so badly. Ocean City and the northern end are doing well and I would hope we could have some type of good business growth in the southern end (to offset it).”

So many challenges lay ahead, but Bunting said it’s not time to sound the alarm.

“I think it’s going to be a difficult year balancing everything out,” he said. “I think we will do well — we’ll work together well. I don’t think it’s doom and gloom for us. We’re going to have to be a little more fiscally responsible with our money, make sure we spend our taxpayers’ money right.”

Commissioners Ted Elder, Diana Purnell and Caryn Abbott did not return requests for comment on this story.

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