MDOT officials pay annual visit to the county
CHESTERTOWN — The Kent County Commissioners discussed transportation, taxes and legislative priorities at their meeting Tuesday night.
Maryland Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Jim Ports Jr. attended the meeting, along with other state officials. The visit was part of MDOT’s annual Consolidated Transportation Program tour for a draft of a six-year capital budget.
Ports said Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration has pledged about $15 billion to improve the state’s transportation. For Kent County that includes about $2.2 million in highway user revenues, $10,000 in highway safety grants and $195,000 in capital assistance to public transportation provider Delmarva Community Service.
Ports said the State Highway Administration is dedicating about $18.8 million for resurfacing projects in the county. The projects include resurfacing state Routes 213, which has been completed, 298, 292 and 566.
“Thanks to Gov. Hogan’s commitment, we’ve hit our target investment and Marylanders are reaping the rewards,” Ports said.
One issue Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, and State Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, raised regarded the status of a proposed bypass crossing that would serve as an alternate to the Chester River bridge. Jacobs said it has been a priority for the county for many years and a letter regarding that need was sent last year to the MDOT.
“When I was first elected in 1994, they were talking about that bypass then,” Commissioner Ron Fithian said. “It was an issue 23 years ago and it certainly hasn’t gotten any better today. It is an important issue to us because the situation isn’t getting any better.”
Ports said the Chester River bridge on Route 213 is classified as “functionally obsolete,” which means though it might not meet several modern standards — like the width of its lanes — it still is not considered “a danger to cross.”
Greg Holsey, SHA District 2 engineer, said there is no new information regarding the proposed bypass. He said that the Chester River bridge underwent detailed repairs last year and several inspections found it to be in “fair condition.”
He said a possible option would be to completely “rehabilitate” the bridge, which would cost about $43 million. Another option would build a replacement bridge, which would cost about $80 million to $90 million.
Holsey said the bypass coupled with rebuilding the existing Chester River bridge is estimated to cost from $482 million to $638 million.
“So you’re saying our chances of getting a bypass are slim-to-none right?” Commissioner Bill Short said. “If that’s the case, there’s no sense blowing smoke anymore. Our citizens need to know.”
Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino said the bypass is a priority for the town as well. He said other counties besides Kent rely on being able to cross the Chester River and that can cause heavy traffic flows.
“If it’s not going to happen, we need to have an open and honest discussion,” Cerino said. “So please, just be honest with us and if you have to, say ‘ You guys need to look at other options.’”
Also at the meeting, officials from Chestertown, Betterton, Galena and Millington appeared before the commissioners to discuss the possibility of reinstating tax rebates for the county’s five incorporated towns.
President William Pickrum and officials from Rock Hall were not present.
Acting as speaker, Cerino said the request is to compensate town taxpayers for the “replication of services” the different towns provide — such as law enforcement and road repairs — that otherwise would come out of the county’s operating budget.
“It’s the right thing to do, seriously. It’s the right and fair thing to do,” Chestertown Councilman Marty Stetson told the commissioners. “If you think about it, you’ll understand what I’m saying.”
Millington Councilman Kevin Hemstock said the town receives a “little” rebate from Queen Anne’s County, due to having nine properties in the county.
Short said the county has been gifting yard waste and stump grinding and mulching services to the town for years. He said the cost is about $35,000 to $40,000 to do so.
“I don’t want to raise taxes for my citizens. But if we do, you can expect a $35,000 or so bill,” Short told town representatives.
Cerino said if Chestertown was to dissolve its police force and road crews, Kent County would then have to raise its taxes to cover those services.
“If we didn’t have a roads crews, that’s about 15 miles of road you’d have to maintain,” he said. “That’s around $500,000 I theoretically save you guys. So you throw us a bone for stump grinding, sure, but we’re paying half a million for something Kent, Queen Anne’s and others use.”
Fithian said that the county recognizes the issue and wanted to discuss it before the next budget cycle begins.
Also at the meeting, Jacobs, Hershey, Del. Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s, and Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline, discussed legislative initiatives with the commissioners. The Maryland General Assembly begins in January.
Fithian said one priority is to obtain more funding for the Kent County school district.
Jacobs said the delegation’s “fingers are crossed” and that they will be working to introduce legislation at this year’s session.
“Every little bit helps, as we all know,” he said. “Our last two years have been good for Kent County, so we’re hopeful.”
Other priorities Fithian and Short mentioned were increasing the salaries of Kent County Orphans’ Court judges and possible amendments to liquor license restrictions for restaurants, such as the ratio between serving food and alcohol.
Maryland Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary Jim Ports Jr. speaks about highway projects during the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.
Representatives from Galena, Betterton, Millington and Chestertown listen as Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, center, talks about possible tax rebates during a Kent County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.