BY NATE SANSOM
With the future of our county at stake, intensity is building as the race for Wicomico County Executive continues.
Three candidatures running to be the county’s top elected official faced off in a political forum hosted in Salisbury last Wednesday. The event was made possible by a collaboration between Salisbury University’s PACE organization, the Greater Salisbury Committee and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce.
Republican incumbent Bob Culver faced opposition from Democrat John Hamilton and Salisbury City Council President Jack Heath, an Independent.
Over the course of the hour-long event, the candidates responded to questions regarding relevant issues. They stated their priorities on topics such as education, fire service, the revenue cap and the regional airport.
Culver says his top priorities would involve infrastructure investment and school safety.
He also praised the progress his administration has made with respect to fiscal responsibility, adding that the county has enjoyed a budget surplus. He also referenced a rainy-day fund, should financial hardships arise in the future.
In response, Jack Heath said his primary focus was education because he believes good schools are a key economic driver for the community. Heath supports the “Imagine 2022 Plan” proposed by Wicomico County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donna Hanlin.
Heath started a debate by calling out Culver’s savings surplus, arguing that the surplus from tax revenue should have been reinvested in education instead of being placed into savings.
Culver feels that not all of the county’s surplus is expendable, as some funds are earmarked for certain projects.
Hamilton stressed that education and infrastructure would be his top two priorities.
“I want to make it so we have reasons to stay in Wicomico,” said Hamilton.
The next question revolved around funding for Independent Fire Station 13.
Culver said he did not plan on setting aside funding for Station 13 this year. He feels every fire company needs their own volunteers and the county cannot afford its own paid fire service.
Heath was more direct in his response, explaining that he would not be funding Station 13 because the county should not pay to provide fire service to people who are already being serviced.
The topic of education led to a discussion of the revenue cap and the county’s ability to raise funds.
Culver said the revenue cap was too convoluted because many citizens do not understand it. However, he did not want to remove the cap, but believed that it should be reformed.
Heath agreed that the revenue cap needs to be reformed, arguing that as it now stands, the cap is not benefiting Wicomico County. Hamilton also said the revenue cap should be transformed into a tax cap.
The debate then continued to reference construction.
Culver wants to continue to stimulate new construction, noting that county offices are open and his administration is doing everything that it can to help builders. Heath then spoke of his desire to develop a strategic plan, stating that he wanted to “look for more short-term incentives that bring long-term payback.”
While discussing lines of communication between the city and county, Culver addressed his relationship with the two councils. While he and the members of the County Council have strong opinions, they do not remain angry at each other.
“If you don’t have strong-willed people, we’re not going to have any results at all,” Culver said.
Addressing what many have characterized as the county’s strained relationship with the city, Culver added that he likes the mayor, although they have different approaches to solving issues and getting things done.
Heath believed that communication is a prerequisite of success.
“If we can bring the community totally together and act as a unit, we’re going to be better off altogether,” Heath said.
Hamilton agreed that communication is necessary to do the job, adding that he would seek input from all community leaders.
Culver said he was proud of all of the work being done at the Salisbury-Wicomico Regional Airport, mentioning that his administration had plans in the works, including initiatives to substantially expand the runway. He characterized the airport a “key economic factor” benefiting our community.
When Heath offered his take on how to further develop the airport, he recognized its importance within our community, although he then proceeded to explain that he could not schedule a meeting with the airport manager.
Heath claimed that the airport manager told him that she would answer questions by phone, but believed that it would be a conflict of interest to meet with him. This revelation prompted an audible response from the crowd.
Hamilton believed that the airport needed to keep improving, so the county should continue to work on upgrades.
Culver addressed his plans for education, stating that he thought Hanlin’s plan was wonderful, and that the county must find a way to fund the “Imagine 2022” plan without raising taxes by a considerable amount.
Heath recognized that all in attendance had vested interests in education, and argued that the county must do what is necessary in order to further the quality education of youth in our communities.
Hamilton suggested that education should be funded entirely without issue.
In closing, Culver mentioned the opioid crisis – a topic that had not been mentioned in the forum – and he applauded efforts that have helped to make Wicomico County a leader in the state at combating the issue.
Heath reminded audience members that he brought integrity, experience and a vision, and concluded by respectfully asking that those in attendance vote for him.
Hamilton’s closing statement addressed his desire to get elected in order to bring the perspective of a young person to the executive branch.
Salisbury Mayor Jake Day spoke after the debate to address the performance of the candidates.
“Both Jack Heath and Bob Culver tonight proved that they take this job seriously. They care for the county – even if they have different visions,” Day said. “I think [Heath] presented the clearest vision and obviously showed that he has the business experience, he has the leadership and he has the integrity to run the county, and run it well.”
The election for Wicomico County Executive is set to take place on Nov. 6, with this marking one of the final important moments for each candidate.