Dist. 36: Sossi Melts Hershey on Campaign $, GOP Primary Endorsement Tiff

September 6, 2010

  Incumbent Delegate Richard Sossi (R-36) is melting the campaign finances of his Republican primary challenger, Steve Hershey, who features a modified version of the chocolate bar in his campaign signs and ads.  But a last-minute flap over which candidate is endorsed by Robert Ehrlich, the expected Republican candidate for governor, has really heated things up.  

   Since no Democratic candidate has filed for the Queen Anne’s County seat in the 36th, the GOP primary will decide that race. (There are three Delegate seats in District 36 and one resident Delegate each from Queen Anne’s, Kent and Cecil Counties is  elected by voters in those counties, plus half of Caroline County.)

   Sossi also had no opposition in the GOP primary until a last minute challenge was filed by Stephen S. Hershey, Jr., of Queenstown. (See previous Cecil Times report on the contest here:  https://ceciltimes.wordpress.com/2010/07/28/36th-delegate-seat-with-gop-friends-like-this-who-needs-democrats/  )

   Sossi has been ahead in the campaign fundraising race by a better than 3-to-1 margin but in the final days leading up to the Sept. 14 primary, the contest has taken on a war of words twist.

    Hershey recently sent out a four-page flyer, citing his past state employment as a political appointee during the Ehrlich administration in Annapolis. The flyer seemed to suggest that Ehrlich, who is hugely popular among Republicans in his bid for another term as governor against incumbent Democrat Martin O’Malley, was endorsing Hershey for the Delegate’s seat.

 That made Sossi see red. Sossi had received permission from the Ehrlich campaign to post his own campaign signs in tandem with Ehrlich’s around the 36th District and Ehrlich had earlier endorsed incumbent Republicans seeking to retain their seats in the House of Delegates. (Hershey has been pairing his signs with those of Del. Michael Smigiel, R-36, and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-36. Hershey was the campaign treasurer for Pipkin’s failed bid for Congress two years ago.)

  So Sossi took to his Facebook page (  http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/richard.sossi?v=wall&ref=mf  ) and he wrote on his “wall” about the “endorsement” flap:  “Tis the election season. Because  a very slick mailer, albeit misleading and specifically not approved, implied endorsement of my primary opponent, the Ehrlich campaign has taken the extraordinary step of approving a press release reaffirming his endorsement of my election.”

   In the press release, supplied by the Sossi campaign, Ehrlich “reaffirmed” his support of Sossi: “Dick Sossi has a track record of fighting for our constituents and I look forward to once again working with Dick to return Maryland to a sound financial footing and to getting our fellow Marylanders back to work.”   The press release also quoted Ehrlich as saying, “”There are some folks that talk the talk, but Dick Sossi walks the walk.” 

  In the latest Sept. 3 campaign finance reports to the State Board of Elections, Hershey does not include costs related to the controversial flyer. In his previous report, Hershey does include  $850 in expenses, paid to a Georgia company, to set up his website, www.hersheyfordelegate.com . However, that site does not comply with Maryland elections law requirements for an “authority” tagline, stating the name of the campaign treasurer. His website has a box, stating “Paid for by Friends of Steve Hershey” but does not include the authority line or treasurer’s name.

   Hershey’s campaign has been largely financed by a $10,000 loan he made to his own campaign, with just $942 in individual contributions, including several from family members. His latest Sept. 3 report listed $2,018 in expenses for printing yard signs and tee shirts but did not cover costs of a flyer mailing by a direct mail operation. Hershey’s report showed $$7,702 cash on hand for the final days of the primary campaign.

   Meanwhile, Sossi still had $36,345 cash on hand, after a year-long fundraising push and spending for campaign ads, printing, signs and mailings.  Most of the contributions to his campaign have been relatively small and based within the district. But in the most recent report, he received a $1,000 donation from the Maryland Realtors Political Action Committee. 

   Sossi’s report showed $1,815 for mailings by a direct mail business, which he said covered two mailings to district residents: one to newly registered Republicans in the district and another to senior citizens.

   Cecil Times has called Hershey for comment and will update this report upon his response.

UPDATE: In the final days before the primary election, Hershey has sent out a slick four-page flyer, with pictures of Sossi purporting to show him nodding off or sleeping in the House chamber and accusing him of “sleeping on the job.”  The Hershey attack flyer asserts “only your vote will wake Sossi up.”  If the pictures were taken on the House floor, the angle is such that they would have had to have been taken by another Delegate or a Delegate’s legislative aide, since average citizens are not allowed on the floor. The flyer does not state a date or time when the pictures were shot, but the House often holds late into the night sessions.

   Reaction to the flyer in the District has been swift and angry. On his Facebook page,    http://www.facebook.com/richard.sossi      Sossi received support from Republicans and citizens who denounced the attack as “dishonest” and “slime.”  Sossi called the attack a “dirty tricks smear campaign” and said constituents had expressed “disgust both with my opponent and his puppet-master.”

   In case there was any doubt, the “sleep” flyer from Hershey was followed up by a separate flyer mailed to District residents by Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) declaring Pipkin’s endorsement of Hershey. The Pipkin flyer listed his own re-election campaign as the source of funds to pay for the mailing. (Pipkin is opposed in the Repubican primary by Donald Alcorn.)

   The Hershey “sleep” mailer appears to have been planned well in advance as a last-minute ploy and seems to explain what had been a puzzling buzzword of his campaign: “energetic.” Sossi has long been the most “energetic” Delegate in the 36th, keeping a grueling schedule of attending community events in the sprawling, four-county district. Hershey has claimed he is the more “energetic” candidate on his campaign materials. It now appears it was all stage-setting for his last-minute attack flyer on Sossi.

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Elkton Senior Housing: Anatomy of a Deal

July 14, 2010

  When a private, profit-making developer proposed turning a series of dilapidated and vacant properties on High Street into a modern apartment building for senior citizens, Elkton town officials  were over-joyed.  Little did they know then that the project would bring them controversy, a court challenge, and a lot of headaches.

   The Elkton Alliance, whose executive director Mary Jo Jablonski was and is also a town commissioner, could barely contain its glee in 2009 when the Ingerman Group, of Cherry Hill, N.J., moved up in the state’s  priority list for federal housing assistance. (See link here:)    http://elktonalliance.blogspot.com/2009/03/high-street-senior-apartments.html

A majority of the town board has moved heaven and earth, as well as town ordinances, to accomodate the project, as documented in town meeting minutes ( see:  http://www.elkton.org/uploads/Meetings/Mayor%20and%20Commissioners%20Meetings/Minutes/MC12.16.09.pdf ) and Circuit Court proceedings brought by critics who questioned the way the town handled the project. (See also the excellent coverage of the town board on www.someonenoticed.wordpress.com as this issue wound its way through the town approval process.)

   The Ingerman Group has built senior housing and low income family housing projects along the East Coast for many years. Many of their projects have won design and environmental awards. (See homepage here: http://www.ingerman.com/index.php ) Indeed, the artist’s renderings of the Elkton project show a building that by any local standard would be a design asset to the community.

   But local residents have questioned why that location was selected for a residence for fragile seniors, in a dilapidated area known for crime and drug-dealing,  and the late-stage announcement of the developer’s decision to add a rather distant property on tiny Collins Street to the project. The Collins property was initially suggested by the developer as a “satellite parking” lot, raising questions about how many seniors or their visitors really would use a distant parking lot. Under questioning at town meetings and in court proceedings, the town eventually admitted that a parking lot could not legally be placed on the Collins property under town zoning law.

   So why continue to include the Collins street property in the project? David Holden, a self-described “development principal” for the project with the Ingerman Group, told The Cecil Times recently that a new decision had been made to use the Collins property as “open space and a garden for residents.”  The property is some distance from the proposed apartment building– estimated at 400 feet by some town commissioners at a December, 2009 meeting– but visually and physically seeming to be a much greater distance when walking the neighborhood.

   The Collins Street property is owned by Cecil Bank, which the developer has identified as providing partial private financing for the senior housing project. But most of the costs of the senior housing project are actually being borne by taxpayers through state and federal housing and economic stimulus programs.

   Apart from the local zoning and administrative issues that landed the project in court, the Elkton Senior Housing project has moved relatively quickly through the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (MDHCD) process for distributing both state and federal funds.  When the project met roadblocks– such as finishing  just out of the money on a competitive list of projects for a special federal economic stimulus program known as TCAP– the state found new ways to give the project other federal funds.

   State documents show that the Elkton Senior Housing project will receive $2 million in state Rental Housing Funds.  In addition, the state initially approved $1,068,551 in federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) for the project. Furthermore, the project was trying to obtain, but failed to win a competition for, even more federal aid, passed through the state MDHCD, under the federal TCAP (Tax Credit Assistance Program), state documents show.

 But when the Elkton project finished just out of the money on the competitive TCAP list, the state came up with a new way to keep the project rolling.

   The state, using federal funds, came up with more money under the Section 1602 Tax Credit Exchange Program for the Elkton project just a few months ago, according to a  4/26/10 state spreadsheet document obtained by Cecil Times. Under the arrangement, the Ingerman Group gave back $480,316 of its previous allocation of federal L0w Income Tax Credits and in return got $4 million in federal Section 1602 aid.

(However, that money, provided under economic stimulus initiatives, mandated that aided projects were “shovel ready.” Court proceedings showed that the Elkton project is far from “shovel ready” and the developers did not even own the land. Furthermore, the court action will require the project to go through town planning, zoning and town board approval procedures all over again.)

 Apart from whether the project abides by federal “shovel ready” rules,  to simplify the math and the gobbledegook of state and federal housing bureaucracy, the Ingerman Group is approved for a total of  about $6.6 million in taxpayer-provided subsidies. ($2 million in state rental housing funds, $588,235 in federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and $4,013,873 in federal Sec. 1602 aid)  The taxpayer-provided aid covers the vast majority of the project’s costs, initially filed with the state as $10.8 million. However, in recent days, the developer has upped the total costs to at least $11.5 million, including the costs of acquiring the Collins street property that was not mentioned in previous filings with the state.

   The Collins street property is owned by Cecil Bank, according to state property records, after a previous sale arrangement fell through and the property reverted to the bank. Cecil Bank’s parent company, Cecil Bancshares, recently signed an agreement with federal and state regulators requiring  the company to adhere to a host of regulations and procedures designed to assure greater oversight and financial accountability for its operations and non-performing “assets,” such as vacant properties. (See federal regulatory document here:  http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/press/enforcement/enf20100702a1.pdf

   As The Cecil Times previously reported here:  https://ceciltimes.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/update-1-elkton-sr-housing-loses-in-court-but-golden-parachute-firmly-in-place/  the county Circuit Court ruled Tuesday that the Town of Elkton did not have proper legal authority to grant fee waivers and concessions to the Collins Street property and the Ingerman Group project and the entire proposal must go through a “do-over” under town ordinances. But the town has been rapidly modifying a host of ordinances in recent weeks, which conveniently apply to the Elkton Senior Housing project, according to evidence presented in the court. So the do-over is expected to have the same outcome, in support of the project and the Collins Street property.

   One of the more interesting, and troubling, points raised during the court proceedings was the revelation by Keith Baynes, attorney for the winning plaintiffs against the town of Elkton, that the Ingerman Group had threatened his clients with lawsuits for daring to speak out and file their suit against the town. Such actions, known as “SLAPP” suits, (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) have been recognized under Maryland law for what they are: attempts to silence critics of public actions. State law sharply limits such lawsuits.


BULLETIN: Town of Elkton Settles Lawsuit after Judge Refuses to Dismiss Case Against Concessions on Elkton Senior Housing Project

July 13, 2010

ELKTON– The Town of Elkton agreed Tuesday afternoon to settle a lawsuit brought by two citizens challenging the concessions made by the town to accomodate a proposed senior citizens housing project, after a Circuit Court judge refused the town’s motion to dismiss the case.

     After the ruling by visiting judge Raymond E. Beck to let the case go forward, both sides hammered out an agreement under which the town conceded it lacked the proper legal authority under town ordinances last December when it granted concessions and waivers of fees to an unrelated property at 110 Collins Street, owned by Cecil Bank, and sought to transfer those waivers to the Elkton Senior Housing Project on High Street.  The town also agreed to pay $4,000 in legal bills incurred by the plaintiffs, Robert Litzenberg and James Nicholson.

   In addition, the developer of the project,  the Ingerman Group, of New Jersey, agreed not to sue Litzenberg and Nicholson. Keith Baynes, the attorney representing Litzenberg and Nicholson, told the court that the developer had threatened to sue his clients for speaking out about and filing their lawsuit over the town’s handling of the project.

   But evidence presented in court also showed that the Town of Elkton has been busy changing ordinances in recent weeks to accomodate the developers, in what appeared to be a back up plan in case the town lost the lawsuit.  So, while previous town approvals and concessions for the project were voided by the court settlement, the town, the developer and other interested business interests will get a “do-over” under recently revised ordinances tailored to fit the senior housing project.

    Before the agreement was reached, Judge Beck observed, “It seems that whenever a mistake was found you’re (the town) backing up and changing the ordinances.” It appeared that the town was saying, “can we make it all retroactive” when the question, the judge said, was really “shouldn’t they have to start all over again?” 

   As a result of the settlement, that is exactly what will have to happen: the developer and Cecil Bank, the owner of the Collins street property that is to be sold to the developer under a separate agreement, will get a “do-over” through the town review process. Given the town board’s support of the project, the outcome is hardly in doubt. But opponents will have a chance to raise more questions in public meetings.

    (The Cecil Times will be filing a more detailed report, including information on the more than $6 million in federal taxpayer funds allocated to this project and its speedy progress through the state/federal approval process, despite the fact that the project was far from “shovel ready,” as mandated by the special economic stimulus funds allocated to it.)


Getting Older in Cecil: More Seniors Need Services

September 28, 2009

   The new U.S. Census Bureau “American Community Survey” finds that in 2008, 11.1 percent of Cecil County residents were age 65 or over.  But longer term state projections estimate the senior population will more than double and reach about 15.3 percent of the county’s overall population by 2030.

  Cecil County needs to start planning now for the infrastructure of transportation, health care and support services that these seniors will need within the next twenty years, especially in the more rural areas of the county where even the most basic services are all but non-existant.

    The new Census snapshot ranks Cecil County 10th out of 16 of the larger counties (and Baltimore City), with Allegany County having the highest proportion (18.3 percent) of residents age 65 or over and Charles County the lowest, with just 8.4 percent.

   Maryland planners project that Cecil County’s overall population will grow to 155,800 by 2030, with seniors age 65 and over accounting for 24,970– or about 15.3 percent of the total– up from an estimated 11,250 in 2010. (By way of comparison, in Florida, the land of retirement, seniors now account for 17.4 percent of the population.)

    The Census survey found that nearly 34 percent of seniors now living in Cecil County have disabilities, with “ambulatory difficulty” the most prevalent problem. As more seniors are unable to drive, their access to what few services exist becomes impossible.

    The county began operating “The Bus” a few years ago with regular,  scheduled routes serving the northern part of the county and primarily delivering passengers to Delaware for connections to the DART system and job sites. But for southern Cecil seniors, it takes advance scheduling to get to a doctor’s appointment in Elkton and senior services provided at the county’s office building on Route 40 are but a distant dream.

  Excellent, and expanding, medical services are available in Middletown, DE but there is no public transit from Cecil County.  As previously reported here, Christiana Care is planning to build an emergency hospital and, most likely, a full service hospital near Route 1 in Middletown.  How will the future seniors of southern Cecil County get there?

    Then there are the basics of food. There are no supermarkets and only a handful of shops offering the most basic groceries south of the canal. The vacant businesses in Cecilton are a natural location and county (and town) planners and economic development officials should prioritize bring these services to the area.

    One bright spot on the horizon is former Commissioner William Manlove’s farewell present to seniors: putting a seniors and community center facility in Cecilton into the Capital Plan shortly before he left office. So far, it has survived in the most recent Capital Plan adoped by current commissioners in April, 2009.

     The senior center is expected to cost $1.6 million, with $800,000 from the state and $558,000 from the county, plus the value of land expected to be donated by the town. So far, the county is projecting funds will be provided in Fiscal 2011 and Fiscal 2012. But with the current state fiscal crisis and tight county funds, don’t consider this a done deal.

     It is not too soon for seniors, and many future seniors who plan to grow old in this county, to insist that our County Commissioners and county departments start planning and delivering services to seniors, especially in the rural areas of the county.