Has Tri-County Council outlived its usefulness?
Once an economic catalyst for Southern Maryland, 53-year-old agency now facing fractures
In 1964, the Southern Maryland Tri-County Council was established to protect slot machines that were being removed from the region by the state.
The organization, comprised of members from Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, brought together local government officials and advocates from the region to fight to keep what was, at the time, the buoy for the region’s economy.
Charles, Calvert, St. Mary’s and Anne Arundel counties had more than 9,000 slot machines, according to the Slot Machine Study Committee report of 1963. The three counties, in total, made at least $24 million in revenue from the machines, which were eventually outlawed in 1968.
The council was estab-
lished as an attempt to keep the region’s economy buzzing and, up until recently, many in the region felt that was still its role. But recently, the Charles County Board of Commissioners voted to only fund the council $9,000 in the next fiscal year despite funding $84,000 in previous years.
The Charles commissioners voted 3-2, with Debra Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) being the lone votes of dissent, to transfer those funds into a local internship program for the county and into hiring an agricultural manager for the county’s economic development department.
Now, after that decision, the very future of the tri-county council is in question. The organization that once spoke for all of Southern Maryland has lost part of its voice, and there is no telling if it will return anytime soon.
“We’re making a big mistake,” said Davis, who is a member of the council’s executive board.
What the council does
John Hartline, the executive director of the council, said the organization has become the biggest collective advocacy group for the region over time. The council lobbies at the state and federal level for different funding sources.
Hartline called the council a “planning agency” that works toward transportation and economic growth opportunities. Two of the biggest initiatives the council has made are the job opportunity program for tri-county area youth between the ages of 16 and 24 and the push for more transportation options in Southern Maryland with the Maryland Transit Authority.
“Improving car pooling, making sure that we get funding for the things that need to be done. I think one of the earliest things was work to get the Thomas Johnson bridge built,” Hartline said.
The Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge connecting St. Mary’s and Calvert, he said, is a key cog in the economy of the two counties and the tri-county area as a whole. Acquiring funding for the bridge project was the most recent top priority for the council in their fiscal year 2017 letter to the state.
Another project the council has long term goals for, he said, is finally getting some sort of mass transit option funded in Charles County for commuters heading into Washington, D.C., Hartline said.
More recently, Hartline said, the council has made additional improvements to their workforce development program, which is targets those 16 to 24 with
financial constraints and tries to find them different employment options and pathways.
Norma Dorsett, who is the program manager for the youth and young adult services program for the council, said the goal of the program is to find “opportunity” for the youth who may not have any otherwise.
Why is Charles County leaving?
Hartline said he did not understand the vote at the time the Charles commissioners made it, and hoped that they would reconsider. The council can only move forward, he said, but the hacking of Charles’ funding may cause them to have to cut staff members.
“The individual counties provide us with our seed money, which was kind of the core of the tri-county council,” Hartline said. “And then we go and get federal and state funds to flow down here.”
Charles County funded the council more money than any other jurisdiction in Southern Maryland, Hartline said. In total, he said, the counties give the council about “four percent” of the organizations total funding.
The annual budget for the council is about $5.1 million per year, Hartline said, but most of it comes from the state and federal level.
However, he said, many of the “discretionary grants” the council gets from year to year depends on the unity of the council from the three governments they represent and the cooperation from the different boards of commissioners.
In December, the Charles County Board of Commissioners invited Hartline and the Tri-County Council to a session to breakdown how the council is improving Charles County and what benefits the commissioners receive from the council.
During the session, Hartline’s presentation was centered on the council’s agricultural development program and its youth workforce program, which Charles County funded $50,000 to each year since 2014.
According to data from the council, there were no less than 30 young adults ages 16 to 24 being employed at the various employment centers per year in that span. But the commissioners argued that not all of the residents were from Charles County and felt the money would be better spent in a more specific way to benefit the county.
Charles County Commissioner President Peter Murphy (D) still feels that way and says the county made the right decision to relocate funds elsewhere with better options.
“We felt we could take that money and do a much better job of supporting our young people,” Murphy said.
The county also wanted to take that $50,000 and hire an agricultural marketing manager, he said, which was an initiative set by the county’s recently approved com-
prehensive plan. Charles was the only jurisdiction in Southern Maryland without one, he said.
And while they did make tangible changes that do benefit Charles County, Murphy said, there was also the issue of Charles County’s needs being lost on the tri-county council.
For example, Murphy said, while the council did have the Johnson bridge as one of its priorities, the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge was not on the top of their list in terms of transportation — despite Gov. Larry Hogan (R) approving the replacement of it late last year.
Murphy said he does not have a problem with the Johnson bridge being prioritized, but said that situation does point out the different direction the counties are going in.
“It’s tough when you have a tri-county organization, because our needs are pretty different,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s not an important thing, but it’s how do you get these areas to work together where they mutually benefit each other?”
However, St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan (R), who is a member of the tri-county council’s executive board, said the issue of choosing the Johnson bridge over the Nice bridge does not point out a difference in willingness to work together but rather a difference in objectives.
And outside of Davis, he said, there was very little communication between the Charles County commissioners and the council. That left even more distance in between the objectives for both sides, he said, which leads to where they are now. Some of that, he said, is inspired by politics.
“You can get into a political pissing contest anytime you want to and say ‘my bridge wasn’t as high as your bridge.’ I don’t know. But I believe the Harry Nice Bridge was on the list,” Morgan said. “If that was the case, I’m really sorr y somebody’s nose got out of joint. There’s not a whole lot I can do about it if that’s what we want to talk about.”
Davis said the council is nonpartisan and politics are not supposed to be part of the decisions they make. And when the council created the list, she said, they did it in a nonpartisan way and found compromise. Both bridges made the list, she said.
Will Charles return?
At the end of the day, Hartline said, losing a partner in Charles County does not do good for the organization. Whether the commissioners choose to return is a decision, however, that must be left up to them.
In the meantime, he said, the council is moving forward with trying to figure out how they can move on in an effective way without Charles County’s funding. They cannot afford to wait until the Charles County commissioners officially make a decision before they think things through.
Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said when the council was established, it was necessary. But “I’m just not seeing the need for it in 2017,” he said.
In some cases, Robinson said, Charles County has more in common with its neighbors to the north in Washington and in Prince George’s County. The needs of Calvert and St. Mary’s counties are not necessarily the same needs of Charles County.
And now, he said, the three counties in Southern Maryland have learned to work on issues without the use of the council. Two of those issues, he said, were the College of Southern Maryland’s Hughesville regional campus and the decision the counties have made on the Tri-County Animal Shelter.
“We have the ability to talk to each other without having it go through the tri-county council,” Robinson said. “I think that organization is not needed in the way it was needed 50 years ago.”
But Calvert County Commissioner Steve Weems (R) said he still has hope that Charles County may return to the commission at some point. Weems said he has been in touch with Charles County Administrator Michael Mallinoff, and said he considers Murphy a friend and wants to have more discussion with him on the matter.
Weems said be believes there is still good the council can do for Charles County and the rest of Southern Maryland, but the final word on how Charles participates will be up to its commissioners. All he can do, he said, is reach out to let them know they are welcome and how beneficial the partnership can still be.
His mantra, “kind words and deeds have brought many a difficult thing to pass,” Weems said, applies to this situation. Respect for the Charles County commissioners and their decision making has to come into play, he said, and if it does not there is no hope they will return.
“I don’t want to burn bridges with anyone. I’m going to maintain that decorum and friendship irrespective of the outcome,” Weems said. “I respect that position if that’s how they feel at the end of the day.”
“Most of the job feels like paperwork,” John Hartline, the president of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, said while he was sitting behind his desk waiting for his next meeting to start last week.
Tanaia Robinson, one of the workers the council is pushing forward, sits at a desk for an internship in a Waldorf employment center last week.