CHESTERTOWN — Running for Kent County commissioner comes with tall orders: more money for schools, more economic development, more doctors, more connectivity.
The trio of Democrats running this year, incumbents William Pickrum and Ron Fithian and challenger Tom Timberman, sought to answer questions on all those issues at the weekly meeting of the Kent Community Breakfast Group held on Aug. 30. The breakfast group hosted the Republican candidates — incumbent Bill Short and challengers Bob Jacob and Tom Mason — the week prior.
The Democratic candidates were given 10 minutes each at the start to talk about themselves. Fithian went first.
Fithian, a waterman turned town manager for Rock Hall, has served as a county commissioner for 20 years. He said that while he has served with a lot of different people on five different boards of county commissioners, the current slate of Pickrum, Short and himself has been one of the most constructive in making differences in a lot of areas.
“When you’ve been a commissioner for 20 years, it’s hard to try to tell anybody what you are or who you are. If they don’t know you by now, they haven’t been paying attention,” Fithian said.
Pickrum grew up on the grounds of Camp Tockwogh, where his parents were the caretakers. He spent 22 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, did a stint as a commercial pilot and currently works in the Delaware Office of Budget and Management. He was first elected commissioner in 2002.
Timberman, a Chestertown resident who previously worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, has developed a plan for the future he calls “Kent 2025.” He said he wanted to look into the problems and challenges Kent County currently faces and ensure services and opportunities that future residents may want are available.
“This is a county that needs a little bit of work. And I hope I will be able to help you all work with me to improve it,” Timberman told the audience.
Education was a top issue in the discussion, as the county funds the largest portion of the Kent County Public Schools budget. The candidates spoke about it in their opening statements and audience members Robbi Behr and Francoise Sullivan, two lead organizers of the local Support Our Schools advocacy group, kept the conversation going. Sullivan is running for the Kent County Board of Education.
Behr asked that with the high rates of poverty in schools and business leaders in the area calling for improvement in education, shouldn’t there be a drive to make Kent County Public Schools a magnet.
David Foster, a member of the Chestertown council, asked why more has not been done to make teachers’ salaries in Kent County more competitive.
Pickrum said teacher pay is in the Board of Education’s wheelhouse.
Fithian said there is a national teacher shortage.
“The problems that are facing Kent County and the education system are not just unique to Kent County. It’s a nationwide problem,” Fithian said. “And if somebody leaves Kent County to go to work in Montgomery County for $2,000 or $3,000 (more) a year, I’m not sure they’re making the best choice. But that’s their choice.”
Fithian talked about the decline of the youth population and how the enrollment at the county’s sole high school is about half the size of the student body that attended when it opened decades ago. He said that population decrease has had effects in other areas, notably making it difficult for volunteer fire companies and emergency services providers to get new members.
“This is just not one simple fix-all. It’s not as simple as some people would like to make it out to be. It is a big problem with the changing demographics of the population and stuff that we have to deal with and figure out how to do it,” Fithian said, adding that schools are not as bad as some people make them out to be.
Pickrum called it a zero-sum game. He spoke about how the county also funds parks and first responders.
“There’s only so many beans in our pot here,” Pickrum said.
He also raised criticisms about the lack of African-American teachers in classrooms.
“But a lot of that issue has to deal with the school system itself. We don’t get into the minutiae,” Pickrum said.
Behr said she sees bringing more families to the county as a solution to a number of issues. She said one of the ways to do that is to “fully fund and support a robust, exciting public education program.”
Fithian said the way to increase the size of the funding pot, outside of bringing in more families and businesses, is to raise taxes.
“And that’s the balance it takes when you’re a commissioner. You want to provide as many services and the best services you can without taxing the people out of the county,” he said.
It was suggested that the commissioners could raise the income tax, as the county is not taking the full amount it could.
Fithian said the commissioners talked about doing that last year and likely will implement it the next time around. He said the county will not see immediate results from it.
When asked how much county funding is not already obligated when budgets are being prepared, Pickrum and Fithian said it is very little.
Timberman said he wants to look into the use of large education foundations that have provided millions in funding to jurisdictions throughout the country willing to test advanced methodologies.
Pickrum and Timberman spoke about developing strategic plans for the county, in addition to the economic development and comprehensive plans already on the books.
“A real strategic plan not only gives a vision but it lays out benchmarks of achievement along a timeline,” Timberman said, noting that the economic development and comprehensive plans do not do that. “They express wishes to achieve something. But they don’t say when or how or whether there’s a budget attached to it.”
Jim Luff, chairman of the Kent County Economic Development Commission, ran as a Republican for commissioner this year but lost in the primary. He disagreed with Timberman on his characterization of the plans. He said there are action items listed for the goals laid out in them.
“How much has been achieved?” Timberman asked.
Luff said the commissioners have the power to make changes. He said boards like the Economic Development Commission were established to serve in an advisory capacity.
Audience member Bob Kramer, a regular at county and Board of Education meetings, asked about how the county can improve the inventory of workforce housing.
Fithian spoke about past efforts extending water and sewer lines to potential areas of development. He said in 2002, he lost an election as people sought to shut down development.
“Well here we are today. They got their wish,” Fithian said.
He spoke about his pro-business record, citing his only opposition being against a group that sought to build wind turbines in the county.
“I never, as a county commissioner, voted against a business coming into this county in my life, except the windmills,” he said. “I voted for Walmart. Do you see a Walmart out there anywhere? I don’t think so.”
In talking about workforce housing, Timberman said the issue is a dearth of employers of all skill levels. He said two larger employers, Dixon Valve and Coupling Co. and LaMotte Co., are highly technical operations.
“They are not going to find them (workers) here unless there is an organization providing those skill sets,” Timberman said.
He said that is why he wants to see a 21st-century technology school started. He said it would provide training on robotics and more, thereby establishing a talent pool of local residents for such companies.
Timberman said there needs to be better inducement packages to bring large employers to Kent County. He said what is currently being offered does not seem to be working too well.
He said directly addressing low-cost housing requires a developer.
“But as far as I know, affordable housing is not on anyone’s priority list,” Timberman said.
In talking economic development, Pickrum said there is a lot of competition out there for recruiting businesses. He said the county needs to have infrastructure.
He said there needs to be an employable workforce, which is an issue for Kent County because most of the labor here is unskilled or semi-skilled. He said schools, public and private, and colleges need to train the workforce.
“Look, bringing in a high-tech company, excuse my English but, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s not reality,” Pickrum said.
He said local entrepreneurs need to be encouraged to dream. He said the county has a business incubator, but the process is slow.
Pickrum said when it comes to tax incentives for recruiting businesses, he does not agree with the county “giving away the farm for a business that’s going to stay here for 10 years and then leave.”
Foster found himself in an argument with Fithian and Pickrum over the Chestertown councilman’s calls for a tax differential. That proposal would see municipal residents paying both town and county taxes get a break on the latter.
Foster said the county previously offered it.
Fithian said that was not the case. He said there previously was an allotment the county gave the towns — not the taxpayers — to offset tipping fees at the regional landfill.
Foster said the state shows that Kent County used to have a tax differential and is one of the few in Maryland not giving it to residents.
Pickrum said the county is looking at a means of relief that would go directly to taxpayers, not the municipal coffers. He has previously said the county might have to phase it in.
“Tom where do you stand?” Foster asked Timberman.
“I support it,” Timberman said.
“Support what?” Foster asked.
“Whatever it is you want,” Timberman said, as the audience laughed.
All three county commissioner seats are on the ballot this year. The election is Nov. 6.