Has Tri-County Coun­cil out­lived its use­ful­ness?

Once an eco­nomic cat­a­lyst for South­ern Mary­land, 53-year-old agency now fac­ing frac­tures

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

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.”

STAFF PHOTO BY MICHAEL SYKES II

“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.

STAFF PHOTO BY MICHAEL SYKES II

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.

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