Cecil Commissioners’ Forum: Democrats Sing from Different Songbooks

   It was the Democrats’ turn to face off at a forum for county Commissioner candidates Monday night, with 4th District primary opponents Carl Roberts and Wayne Tome offering strikingly different assessments of the state of the county and its future.

  But it was Commissioner Brian Lockhart, D-3, who is unopposed in his party’s primary, who offered the biggest surprise of the night. First, that he appeared at the forum, sponsored by the Cecil County Patriots (the local arm of the “tea party” movement) and second, that he said the commissioners are considering privatization of other county-owned assets and services, beyond the pending sale of certain county water and sewer operations to the private Artesian company. In a post-forum interview with Cecil Times, Lockhart said the commissioners are considering privatization of landfill and jail operations.

   Also speaking at the forum was Earl Piner, Sr., who is unopposed in his party’s primary for the Dist. 2 commissioner seat. Piner was a long-time Elkton town commissioner, a former county school board member, and a coach of sports teams at Cecil College and in local youth programs.

   The Patriots’ group again enlisted a moderator from the non-partisan Toastmasters’ International organization who read a list of questions, drafted with input from county residents who responded to a request for suggested questions for the candidates. In the contested primary race, Roberts and Tome appeared together to answer questions and were able to respond to each other, while Piner and Lockhart each appeared alone. All candidates appeared together at the end of the two hour program to offer closing statements.

    The Patriots’ group held a separate forum several weeks ago for Republican commissioner candidates, although three candidates affiliated with the “Young Republicans Club” boycotted the event. Read the Cecil Times report here:   https://ceciltimes.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/candidates-forum-civility-and-cliffs-notes-for-cecil-county-issues/

   During Monday’s forum,  there was a glass half-empty, glass half-full disparity between Roberts, the former superintendent of county schools, and Tome, a Baltimore County professional firefighter manager and the former mayor of Port Deposit who was elected to the county board four years ago.

  Roberts outlined his assessment of the dire state of the county’s economy and its over-reliance on residential property taxes for revenues. He warned that next year’s budget would be even more difficult than this year’s since property assessements by the state have been reduced due to falling home prices, and the county will be hard-pressed to come up with the revenues needed to pay for essential services.

   “We need to dramaticallty change he way we govern, the way we lead,” Roberts said. He called for creation of a detailed “strategic plan”  to provide a roadmap for dealing with the current recession but also to  create a framework for business and economic development to fundamentally change the way the county obains the revenues it needs to support public services. “We’re late, we’re behind the eight-ball,” Roberts said, and the current reliance on residential property taxes to supply 61 percent of revenues should be downsized to about 55 percent.

   Tome said the county was “doing well with economic development” despite the recession. He said the current commissioners had worked hard to find solutions to the need for infrastructure in the growth corridor, between I-95 and Route 40, and the Artisian sale would finally bring utilities to the area without costing taxpayers. He noted that the county was also poised to put in place agreements to provide infrastructure to serve the long-stalled Bainbridge project in the northwestern part of the county and also a franchise agreement with a Delaware firm to bring natural gas services to the growth area.

    “The records speaks for itself,” Tome said. “I’m here asking for four more years.”

     Tome said state and federal aid, possibly through homeland security programs, could ease the county’s fiscal problems and to help get the long-stalled Bainbridge project on track. He also said the anticipated revenues of $3 million in the current fiscal year from the new slots parlor in Perryville could  be used to “finesse” the county’s budget  problems.

     But Roberts shot back, “Nobody’s going to bail us out…there’s no federal dollars coming, no state money coming” and the county must “solve our own problems.”

      At one point, Roberts took a shot at himself, saying he had heard critics say he should “smile more.”  So he smiled. “I do laugh, I do smile, I do have a sense of humor,” he said. And if people think he is “not collaborative” with others, then they should talk with the many county business groups he worked with over the years to develop partnerships for educational programs.

     Meanwhile, Lockhart, who is seeking re-election to his second term on the board, defended the planned sale of county water and sewer facilities to Artesian, a deal that is currently under challenge in a lawsuit brought by a citizens’ group.  And he said the county would continue to “pursue privatization of other assets that the county government has.” He said the county has to keep cutting expenses and “we’re going to continue to cut taxes.” (This year, the county cut the property tax rate to the so-called “constant yield” rate, which means the county must live with the same amount of revenues as it had in the previous budget year.)

    After the forum, Lockhart told Cecil Times that he wants to see the county jail turned over to a private contractor. The county just broke ground on a multi-million dollar expansion and modernization of the jail. He said the county would own the facility but hire a private contractor to run it and hire its own employees to guard inmates.

    He also called for privatization of county landfill operations. County commissioners came under fire from citizens this year after imposing a new recycling fee and higher trash drop-off  fees, as well as sharply reduced hours of operation at the landfill and two county trash transfer stations.

     Lockhart’s appearance at the Patriots’ forum, held at the VFW hall in North East, was his first question-and-answer candidates forum appearance since he first ran for office four years ago.  He has stayed away from organized forums in the past, saying he preferred one-on-one contacts with individual voters.

     Piner emphasized his involvement with the community during his comments at Monday’s forum, saying he could sit down and work with disparate groups and hammer out a compromise solution. He also refused to “guarantee” that taxes would not be raised on his watch. “I hope not to raise taxes,” he said, but the local economy is “going into a dive” and new sources of revenue must be found, especially through business development.

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