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36th District legislators say funding demands of Kirwan will hit Kent disproportionally

ANNAPOLIS — The Kirwan Commission, access to healthcare, the environment and economic development were the focus of Monday’s pre-legislative discussion with the 36th District delegation of Sen. Steve Hershey and delegates Jay Jacobs (Kent), Steve Arentz (Queen Anne’s) and Jeff Ghrist (Caroline) — all Republicans.

Hosted by the Kent County Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Kent County, the discussion was held via Zoom. A recording can be accessed on the Kent County Chamber of Commerce’s YouTube channel.

The General Assembly’s 90-day legislative session opened yesterday.

Helping Kent County find funding for its portion of the county’s public school budget under the new formula proposed by the Kirwan Commission is a priority for the delegation.

“If you look at per-capita wealth we are a wealthier county, but the big issue for Kent County is the tax effort. The commissioners cannot raise a single tax in Kent County, they are tapped out,” said Ghrist.

If you look at just the property tax rate, Kent County is the third richest county in the state, said Jacobs, but that doesn’t paint an accurate picture of what life is like in Kent County. He said the Kirwan Commission formula does not consider the number of students in Kent who qualify for free or reduced lunches or that it costs more to bus students in a rural county such as Kent.

“Our concern is really how disproportionately Kent County is going to be hit by this … looking at the legislation they [Kirwan Commission] are not willing to budge on the formula,” he said.

To combat that Jacobs said the delegation was looking at providing additional funding for transportation to Kent County Public Schools or using a formula similar to the one the state uses to fund small colleges.

“We’ve got this year to get this problem fixed because the chair of the appropriations committee (Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-District 43, Baltimore City) is retiring,” he said.

Moving to healthcare, Hershey said he was pleased that plans were still on track for an aging and wellness center at the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown. He said this would allow the hospital to maintain its inpatient beds and an emergency department, as well as bring more aging and wellness services to the county.

Hershey said the biggest concern he was hearing from healthcare workers was keeping kids in school.

“I think it’s very important that we focus on whatever we need to do to keep children in school so these frontline healthcare workers [who also are parents] can work,” Hershey said.

The healthcare industry is facing the same struggle a lot of businesses on the Shore and in the state are, a lack of workers.

“Even with all the dollars being paid we still have work shortages. Where have all these people gone and what can we do to draw people back to work,” said Arentz (Queen Anne’s).

Ghrist said there has been a push at the local and state levels to build a technical school at Chesapeake College to draw more students into vocational training, including healthcare.

“When you look at regional tech schools in Delaware and in the state of Maryland, they are state of the art. They are offering classes that Virginia Tech has and they draw kids to the program. … If we can expand dual-enrollment and start telling kids in middle school that this is an option it might open up a new workforce for us,” he said.

Hershey said that most economic development projects on the Shore come from the county level, not the state, but that the state can help spur development by keeping taxes and fees down. He said the legislation that was passed last year with unions and wages “makes Maryland very unfriendly to businesses.”

The push toward more renewable energy sources also was discussed.

“I think it’s a laudable cause that Maryland wants to be 100% dependent on clean energy sources, but the problem is we don’t have the ability to do that,” said Arentz.

He said a lot of Maryland residents don’t live in energy-efficient houses so even if you gave them the cheapest energy possible, they would still be using more to heat or cool their home.

He also questioned why “we are taking over fields and fields of farmland on the Eastern Shore when we could put solar energy panels in other places.”

Jacobs said there was a massive climate bill in the legislature last year, but in the end, it was so big no one could agree on it, so parts of the bill were taken out and tacked onto other bills. One of the issues that did not get resolved was regulation concerning solar panel fields.

“They (the state) are looking hard at the Eastern Shore all the time, but it takes out a lot of our productive farmland and people have to eat. … We are looking at meeting these goals but there are a lot of puzzle pieces that need to fall into place before we solve them,” Jacobs said.

Hershey said the biggest environmental danger facing the state was not a lack of renewable energy, but the Conowingo Dam. He said it directly impacts the health of the Chesapeake Bay as well as flooding in the state.

“There have been no federal dollars awarded for the clean-up of the silt buildup behind that dam. That will have the biggest impact on us,” Hershey said.

While a proposed state budget had not yet been introduced, it will be during the legislative session, the members of the 36th District delegation agreed that the budget will most likely be straight forward with no proposed tax increases. They all expressed concern about what could happen to the budget when money stops flowing from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan.

“Technically we’re in good shape, but at some point, this is going to end and we’re going to be back in recovery mode,” said Jacobs.

“At some point the federal faucet is going to be turned off and it’s going to force people to go back to work, but if not, that’s going to have a huge impact on the economy,” said Ghrist.

The way business is conducted in the Statehouse has been altered due to COVID-19 protocols. All committee work will be conducted virtually. Signup for members of the public who wish to testify will be opened online through the General Assembly website 48 hours before the bill hearing, and hearings will be capped at a maximum of 50 people per bill.

Individuals who wish to register to speak should contact their representative.

The best way residents can support the District 36 delegation is to get involved or sign up to testify at hearings, said Arentz.

“There has never been a lack of support in Kent County for anything we’ve done in the General Assembly,” said Hershey. “Kent County is great when it comes to supporting and bringing forth issues that are important to them.”

“Kent County may be the smallest county, but I can tell you when it gets behind an issue, they know who we are in Annapolis,” said Jacobs.

Contact information for the District 36 delegation is printed here:

Sen. Stephen Hershey, 410-841-3639 or 301-858-3639, email steve.hershey@senate.state.md.us

Del. Steven Arentz, 410-841-3543 or 301-858-3543, email steven.arentz@house.state.md.us

Del. Jeff Ghrist, 410-841-3555 or 301-858-3555, email jeff.ghrist@house.state.md.us

Del. Jay Jacobs, 410-841-3449 or 301-858-3449, email jay.jacobs@house.state.md.us


CHESTERTOWN — The Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company responded to a two-alarm fire at 98 Cannon St. at 6:26 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 12. There were no injuries reported. The preliminary cause is under investigation, according to a news release from the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The fire originated in the kitchen of the 98 Cannon Riverfront Grill restaurant. Sixty firefighters responded, bringing the fire under control in two hours. Loss is estimated to total $200,000 between the structure and contents. Anyone with information regarding the fire is urged to contact the Upper Shore Eastern Regional Office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal at 410-822-7609. Pictured, Chestertown firefighters are obscured by smoke. Our photo was taken at 8:06 a.m. Wednesday.


Emergency_notice
Regional health officials ask for public's help to lessen strain on first responders, hospitals during COVID surge

EASTON — Regional county officials, including the Emergency Medical Services departments of Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties, the chief clinical officer of Choptank Community Health and the chief medical officer of the University of Maryland Shore Regional Health are requesting action by local residents to help alleviate the unprecedented strain that the current COVID-19 surge is placing on the area’s EMS personnel, frontline responders and hospitals.

According to a UM Shore Regional Health news release issued Tuesday, Jan. 11, more than 5,500 confirmed COVID-19 infections have been reported in the five-county region in the past two weeks — far exceeding the numbers seen over the two-year lifespan of this pandemic.

In Kent County alone, there have been more than 200 confirmed cases of the virus and one death in the first 12 days of January, according to the Maryland Department of Health website.

Kent County Health Office William Webb said COVID-19 testing is in high demand.

“The Omicron Surge has completely overwhelmed the community’s ability to provide testing services,” Webb wrote in an email. “Availability of At Home Kits has been scarce on the commercial market. Kent Pharmacies and JBK Hardware have been selling At-Home Kits whenever they are available.”

The Kent County Health Department distributed 162 at-home test kids that had been received from the Maryland Department of Health to community partners in the first week of January.

“This surge is predicted to last an additional 45 to 60 days and threatens to overwhelm our frontline healthcare providers and our healthcare system as a whole,” Dr. William Huffner, chief medical officer for UM Shore Regional Health, said in the news release.

He said increased numbers of hospitalizations and a shortage of available staffed beds have put tremendous strain on hospitals and on emergency departments as patients needing to be admitted into hospitals stay in the ED until a bed can be found.

According to Huffner, more than 70% of hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated, and fewer than 5% have received a COVID-19 booster shot.

“During these times, when there is added stress on our local emergency resources, we encourage everyone who is eligible to get their vaccines and boosters,” said Wayne Darrell, director of Kent County Office of Emergency Services.

Huffner and other area health officials said the public should keep in mind that patients arriving for emergency care are triaged — meaning prioritized — for care based on their degree of illness or injury, whether they come on their own or by ambulance.

“When bed shortages are severe, ambulances may be required to take patients to other facilities,” said Brian LeCates, director of Talbot County Emergency Medical Services. “This can take EMS units out of local communities for hours at a time, making them less available for appropriate 9-1-1 calls such as for heart attack, stroke and traffic accidents. We want to be sure that ambulance transport is available for urgent cases.”

“Our EMS system, hospitals and healthcare personnel are responding to these extraordinary circumstances and continue to meet the needs of our patients,” said Dr. Ted Delbridge, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which coordinates the state’s EMS system. “EMS clinicians are available when you truly need them, but please make sure there is a true emergency before calling 9-1-1 or going to the ED.”

“We need help from the community to best utilize our limited healthcare resources. Look for alternative testing opportunities, treat your mild symptoms at home, and do what you can to slow the spread,” said Megan Woytko, CRNP, chief clinical officer of Choptank Health. “The more we can provide primary care services, the more we can keep patients out of the ED and better support our hospitals.”

Regional health experts are asking the community to help in this fight by doing the following:

• Do not go to an ED just to obtain a COVID-19 test. Instead, go to an approved COVID-19 testing site (https://coronavirus.maryland.gov/pages/symptoms-testing) or use a home test kit.

• Limit 9-1-1 EMS calls to true emergencies.

• Contact your primary care provider or go to an urgent care center for illness that does not require emergency care.

• Get vaccinated and/or receive the COVID-19 booster, and encourage others to do the same.

• Wear a well-fitting mask when in public. If you are concerned, or have high risk medical problems, wear a KN95 or N95 mask.

• Practice social distancing and wash hands frequently.

• Limit exposure to others, especially if there has been close contact with someone known to have COVID-19 or there are COVID-19 symptoms.

By following these guidelines, Eastern Shore residents can help decrease COVID-19 transmission and, in so doing, decrease the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

KCHD will continue community testing 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday. Due to high demand, walk-ins are not accepted.

The Kent County Community Center in Worton will be housing vaccination clinics on Thursdays, January 13 and 20 and Friday, January 21.

To schedule a testing or vaccine appointment, or for more information, visit kenthd.org.

MacKenzie Brady contributed to this reporting.


News
BOE tasked with pre- or post-Labor Day start for school year

ROCK HALL — Kent County Public Schools is seeking feedback on the proposed 2022-23 academic calendar.

The calendar committee, which consisted of teachers, support staff, administrators and parents, met on Dec. 17 and Jan. 4 to create the proposed calendar for next year, according to the agenda for Monday night’s Board of Education meeting.

An initial survey was sent out to gauge when the school year should start, how long breaks should be, if certain days should be professional development days and more.

The initial survey garnered 468 responses from parents, community members, teachers, support staff, administrators students and more, KCPS Human Resources Supervisor Dan Hushion, who led the committee, said in his presentation

Of those responses, 67.7% preferred the school year to start Sept. 6, after Labor Day. The majority, 53.2%, also preferred winter break to start on Dec. 22. Most, 63.4%, were also in favor of an extended spring break from April 7 through April 12 for students and 10-month staff; offices would reopen April 10.

“That (an extended winter and spring break) is almost nearly impossible with a post-Labor Day start,” Hushion told the board. “There’s just not enough room, enough days to play with, in a post-Labor Day start,” he said.

From that data, the committee designed two potential calendars for next school year.

Option one is a post-Labor Day start of Sept. 6. In this option, winter break would run Dec. 23 through Jan. 2 with students returning to school Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Spring break would be from April 6 through April 10. The last day of school for students would be June 15, with a half day dismissal.

Hushion said KCPS has gone with a post-Labor Day start for the past two school years and the 2022-23 calendar would look similar to those before it.

Option two is a pre-Labor Day start of Aug. 30. In this option, winter break would run Dec. 21 through Jan. 2 with students returning to school Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. Spring break would be from April 6 through April 12. The last day of school for students would be June 15, with a half day dismissal.

Both proposed calendars have built in four inclement weather days, loosely referred to as “snow days.”

“One of the things we will have for you when we bring a final proposal forward next month is that we do intend to build in some half-days on those Wednesdays,” Hushion said, referring to Wednesdays leading up to breaks.

A survey on the two proposed calendars has been distributed using KCPS’ BrightArrow Notification System.

Nivek Johnson, newly elected by his colleagues to serve as the board’s vice president for 2022, said the option one winter break start date of Dec. 23 was “so close” to the holiday.

“You’re making a strong ask for families to travel,” Johnson said. He asked if there were other days that could be “given up” to make that break start a little earlier.

Hushion said they would try to look into making that winter break start earlier.

Board member Trish McGee, who is also the associate editor of the Kent County News, asked if there were opportunities to “take a day somewhere” if they needed to use more than the allotted four inclement weather days.

Superintendent Karen Couch said days could be taken off of spring break.

“That’s why the post-Labor Day is very difficult. There’s not much wiggle room with free days because of contractural holidays that are also built in,” Hushion said.

Couch said one of the reasons the schedule was so difficult this year was because Labor Day is “late.”

“We really tried to do everything we could on both,” Hushion said.

Board member Wendy Costa asked if schools had to let out by June 15.

Couch said no, but adding additional days on the end of the year was one way to make up for inclement weather days.

“Yeah because that’s so popular,” McGee said with a laugh.

McGee also wondered if some of the early dismissals would be changed from 90-minute dismissals to half-day dismissals for students.

Sam Buckel, the student member of the board, said he was in favor of the post-Labor Day calendar.

As of noon Monday, Jan. 10, 53.3% of respondents to the calendar survey said they preferred a pre-Labor Day start with extended winter and spring breaks.

The calendar committee plans to bring a final recommendation to the school board in February. The survey will close later this month.


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