The future of Wicomico County begins tomorrow! At 11:30 AM, Tuesday, Wicomico County will witness the swearing-in of its second County Executive – Bob Culver. While Culver can seize upon several opportunities, he faces a great number of steep hurdles. Is he up to the task? We hope so.
Show Me the Money
More than most places, the relationship between Wicomico County government and its citizens focuses on money. We have the revenue cap. Voters seem to believe that taxes can be cut, perhaps ad infinitum, with little or no impact on services. As with most localities, the bureaucracy at the local Board of Education (WCBOE) equates quantity of money spent with quality of education. For the last several years Wicomico’s county council has refused to cut spending requested by the outgoing county executive while that same County Executive has refused to trim the county payroll despite cutting back on services. Rather than maintain its existing physical plant, the local Board of Ed wants to build more schools and the county government (both executive and council) have acquiesced. Wicomico County keeps borrowing while debt and pension obligations keep growing. Despite the wishful thinking of some, there are no easy solutions.
We would suggest Mr. Culver attack low hanging fruit first; while planning for the more difficult tasks ahead:
- Cut the Budget NOW!
- Require Accountability from the Board of Education
- Implement Zero-Based Budgeting
- Make Voters a Part of the Solution
- Pension Reform
- Grow the Local Economy
- Cut the Budget … NOW!
It won’t be popular. It won’t even be easy. Regardless, Culver should come out swinging! That means start cutting the budget now.
For years outgoing county executive Rick Pollitt has refused to cut payroll despite a cut in county services. I can understand that argument in some departments (maybe), but certainly not in others.
For how many years have we heard that the state has seized the county’s road maintenance money to help balance its own budget? Yet, if roads aren’t being adequately repaired, why haven’t there been corresponding cuts in personnel? Does Wicomico County really need all its building inspectors given the still-anemic level of development? How did the Department of Law go from one attorney eight years ago to three or four? What jobs currently carried out by county employees can be contracted out?
Comb through the existing budget NOW! Make department heads justify every nickel they are spending … NOW! Cut spending … period.
Culver needs to get the county council on board early in the game. Sure, many cuts could be implemented unilaterally. He doesn’t have to spend every dime the council has appropriated. It doesn’t matter. Culver should seek their input AND their approval. Culver will need council’s approval for much of the heavy lifting ahead. There is no time better than the present for the council and executive to start working together … and in the right frame of mind.
Will this solve Wicomico County’s budgetary woes? Of course not! It will barely make a dent. Culver doesn’t need to swing for the fences. Some solid base hits out of the box will bode well for both Culver and the people who elected him.
Require Accountability from the Board of Education
If any one of us could wave a magic wand, all of our schools would be palaces. Every teacher would be exceptional and inspirational. We would also live in a place where (to steal from Garrison Keillor) “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”. I don’t know about you, but I live in the real world.
We can’t tear down our houses and build new ones every 50 years because we refused to fix the roof and paint the trim. Yet, that is not a gross exaggeration of the WCBOE’s view towards school maintenance. They want to shutter schools and reassign children based, not on population growth or physical need, but on a transparent attempt to make their test scores appear better. Because they are not accountable to the voters, they act with impunity. The Board of Ed’s meetings aren’t even televised on PAC-14.
Culver should initiate a PUBLIC dialog between the WCBOE, county council, and his office. We do not advocate using the WCBOE as a whipping boy. However, they need to justify their actions to the public which funds their office. They need to address the lack of maintenance in schools as well as work together with the executive and council to offer solutions to reduce the cost of public schools.
We expect the vast majority of solutions would be small. Possibilities include replacing school resource officers from the Sheriff’s office with retired police personnel on a contract basis. Serious attention should also be paid to contracting out as many functions as possible. Savings do add up.
Implement Zero-Based Budgeting
One of the cornerstones of Culver’s campaign for County Executive was a promise to institute zero-based budgeting. This involves taking EVERY department and starting with a budget of zero. Each department head must justify every expenditure. Unlike his predecessor, Culver understands what the concept entails.
Pollitt promised zero-based budgeting but he didn’t grasp the definition. He claimed that you use last year’s budget numbers and count that as “Year Zero”. This is nothing more than the age old bureaucratic concept of simply taking last years numbers and adding on to them. The taxpayer always loses under this scenario.
Voters would be wise not to hold Culver to this promise during his first year. This is particularly the case if he chooses to adopt our first suggestion – Cut the Budget NOW. Department heads are already working on their budget numbers for the next fiscal year. If Culver implements cuts in this year’s budget he can at least implement those same cuts, and hopefully more, in next year’s budget. Department heads will have plenty of time to start planning for the new methodology.
It may also be advantageous to Culver to offer bonuses to department heads and other county employees who offer serious, definitive proposals to save the taxpayer money.
Make Voters Part of the Solution
Rick Pollitt was famous for his annual budget “dog and pony show”. Usually held in the Flanders Room of the Wicomico County Youth and Civic Center, this was little more than a parade of government employees and their families standing before a microphone and telling us poor, dumb taxpayers how parsimonious Pollitt was with the taxpayers’ hard earned dough.
Our suggestion to Culver is a bit different. He should host a series of events around the county AND throughout the year. The focus should be three-fold:
- How can the county government reduce spending.
- How can the county government attract more businesses and homeowners to Wicomico County.
- How do voters prioritize the services they receive from Wicomico County.
Sure, some citizens are going to just stand up and spout off that the government just wastes money. Others are going to claim that they don’t waste a shiny dime and actually need more money. However, some polite, gentle prodding by the County Executive might yield some good, actionable ideas. Besides, it’s just plain good politics.
Allowing more citizen input, and reaching out beyond the Government Office Building for ideas, increases the probability that costs can actually be reduced in a meaningful way. Citizens are more likely to stand behind a budget that includes specific cuts that come from real citizens rather than faceless bureaucrats.
With each passing year, Wicomico County’s pension obligations grow. Any casual reader of the news is aware that a growing number of localities around the country have been driven to bankruptcy because of unfunded pension obligations.
Wicomico County is fortunate. Its unfunded obligations are low compared to other state and local governments around Maryland and the U.S. Some people may question the necessity of reforming pensions now. Why leave the problem for our grandchildren. That makes us no better than the federal and Maryland governments.
Serious consideration should be given to establishing defined contribution retirement plans for county employees. The cost is known, up front, and there would not be any long term obligation left for future generations to fund.
County employees also receive a generous medical benefit upon retirement. This should be scrutinized and a fair solution devised for both retirees and the taxpayers.
Grow the Local Economy
Here’s the whopper! With high state income taxes and a regulatory environment that makes Obama’s EPA look like a Reaganite’s dream it’s tough to encourage economic development in Maryland. New business growth in Maryland is too often tied to supplying the federal juggernaut or serving the federal employees and contractors spending our tax dollars. Unfortunately Wicomico County doesn’s share a border with Washington, DC.
Currently, cutting the county’s share of the state income tax simply isn’t practical. So – how do you attract businesses, and homeowners, to Wicomico County?
First, it’s a good idea to find out what people are looking for. This applies to employers, individuals, and families. Business that have moved here from elsewhere should be asked why?
Second thru … – SELL!, SELL!, SELL!. We may not have the lowest taxes, but we can offer a better quality of life. If workforce development is an issue, we have Wor-Wic Community College. The point is to sell on our strengths and play down our real or perceived weaknesses.
This won’t come easy. It won’t come quick. It has to be done; and it was a key issue in Culver’s election campaign. We suggest to Mr. Culver that he look at what has been done and attempt to build on it. We suggest that he then come up with additional strategies to help grow our local economy. Without that growth we will face the same decline we are just moving out of when the business cycle or real estate market changes in the wrong direction.
November’s election was clear! The people of Wicomico County wanted change at the top of their county government. They may be expecting too much from one man. However, if Bob Culver keeps his eye on all of the balls flying around him and puts his shoulder to the proverbial wheel, we expect that he will be a successful County Executive. That success will be good for both Mr. Culver and the people who elected him.