State of the Town of Chestertown 2020
STATE OF THE TOWN: The Charter of the Town of Chestertown states, “The Mayor, during the first quarter of each calendar year, shall report to the Council the condition of municipal affairs and make such recommendations as he (she) deems proper for the public good and welfare of the town.” Herein is said report.
This past year was one that the residents of Chestertown will never forget. Economically and financially, it appeared that the Town was inching closer to a recovery from the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008-9. For the first time in over a decade, the number of building permits issued by the Town increased substantially and property valuations were stable or rising. The Mayor and Council’s efforts to hold operational expenses down were starting to have positive impacts on the General Fund. Then, during the early weeks of 2020, a foreboding global pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China arrived on the shores of the United States and impacted American society on a scope and scale not seen since 1918.
With the onset of the COVID-19 health crisis, almost everything usually highlighted in the State of the Town Address seems trivial compared to the life-threatening impacts of this infectious disease. Public safety became the most important community concern and Governor Hogan, the Maryland Department of Health, and the Kent County Health Department led us through the pandemic with firm directives on protective safety procedures and restrictions on public gatherings. As a result, the Town Council changed their meeting format from in-person sessions at Town Hall to on-line Zoom meetings, with live streaming video footage posted on the Town website. Chester Gras was the only large event that was held in 2020, followed by the cancellation of nearly every other traditional Chestertown festival. Major events that had to be cancelled in 2020 included Earth Day, PRIDE Weekend, the Chestertown Tea Party Festival, the National Music Festival, Legacy Day, the Jazz Festival, the annual September block party on Cross Street hosted by DCA and Main Street, the HP Festival, Santa’s arrival and the Christmas Parade over Thanksgiving Weekend, Downrigging Weekend, Cars on High, and Dickens Weekend. Additionally, the Visitors Center was closed to public visitation for most of the year.
Another extremely serious matter addressed by the Council in 2020 was social justice and the impact of three centuries of systemic racism on the community. Vaulted into the national public consciousness by several tragic events in the spring and summer involving the senseless murders of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement, the Town Council engaged in several public discussions about how to address this issue at the local level. These conversations resulted in several important actions and resolutions adopted the Council in the fall of 2020.
The first decision was to sponsor and participate in the painting of the Black Lives Matter mural on the 200 Block of High Street and the We Can’t Breathe mural on the 200 North Block of College Avenue. The Council unanimously voted adopt these murals as government speech and added the phrase “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” to both street paintings.
The second decision was to pass Resolution 03-2020 Regarding Black Lives Matter in Chestertown, Maryland (October 5, 2020). In Resolution 03-2020, the Mayor and Council officially apologized for Chestertown’s historic role in the slave trade and for the lives, wealth, and freedoms that were stolen from enslaved people. It acknowledged and honored the positive contributions of African Americans to Chestertown and strongly affirmed that all citizens have equal rights, equal access to goods and services in our businesses, equal rights to be treated fairly by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, equal rights to start and maintain businesses, and equal access to housing and employment. The Resolution also committed the Town to establish a Human Rights Commission, but the Ordinance to create the Commission was withdrawn at the Mayor and Council meeting of December 7, 2020.
The third action was to pass Resolution 05-2020, which on October 19, 2020 authorized the creation of an Equity Advisory Committee that will assist the Town with Chestertown Unites Against Racism, a comprehensive 16-month plan that features a variety of initiatives addressing systemic racism in Chestertown. The plan focuses on the three pillars of Education, Legislation, and Unification. Portions of the plan have already been set into motion and implementing the remaining action items will be a continued focus of the Mayor and Council throughout 2021.
On a fourth matter of importance, the Mayor and Council had a Zoom meeting with MDE and UMMS Shore Regional Hospital on November 20, 2020 to discuss the ongoing remediation efforts to clean up the remnants of a 30-year-old heating oil spill on the Hospital’s Brown Street campus. The meeting was precipitated by an unauthorized shut-down of the pump and treat system at the Hospital for almost two months that was discovered in the back of 300 plus page report. Prior to that, a six-month trial shutdown of the system had been approved by MDE and scheduled to start in the summer of 2020. However, after the unauthorized shutdown, MDE fined the Hospital and the trial shutdown was postponed indefinitely – likely until the spring of 2021. As a result of this systemic failure, the Hospital released the former consultants working on the remediation plan and hired a new firm to oversee the cleanup efforts: Gannett Fleming. During the Zoom meeting, Gannett Fleming gave a comprehensive analysis of the spill and how they intended to move forward. The Town provided its own history of the spill and documented long periods of time when the Mayor and Council had not been informed of actions that potentially jeopardized the Town’s well system. The historic records show that at least 85,000 gallons of heating oil have been recovered from the site to date, and the Town has suffered the loss of a shallow water well that was never replaced or compensated for by the Hospital or MDE. The November meeting was the first dialogue where all parties had met at one time for over seven years. The result was a promise of complete transparency with the Town by UMMS, their consultant, and MDE in the future.
What follows are the more usual annual items found in a typical State of the Town Address:
- FINANCIAL: The FY2020 audit for the Town of Chestertown was completed on October 29, 2020 by Lindsey & Associates, LLC of Towson, Maryland. The audit showed the Town to be in strong financial condition with total net assets over liabilities in all departments of $19,034,763, up from $18,485,728 in 2019. Property tax rates had been raised from $.37 to $.42 per $100 in FY2018 and from $.42 to $.43 per $100 in FY2020 in hopes that the increase, along with improving property values, would provide the municipality with adequate revenues to cover expenses for a meaningful number of years. In addition to the increased revenues, overall expenses decreased by $232,835. The Town continues to retain the Homestead Property Tax Credit percentage of 5%, which limits the increase in a homeowner’s property tax bill to 5% in any given year, no matter how much their assessment has increased.
- NEW CONSTRUCTION: Somewhat ironically, 2020 was a banner year for new construction permits in town. Five new single family detached homes and eight new townhouse units were approved last year with a total reported value of $2,439,000. Commercial construction values reported on the permits for the Boss building, the YMCA, and Dunkin Donuts totaled $20,502,500. In the downtown Historic District, major reconstruction has continued on the 200 and 300 blocks of High Street. The total value of all permits, large and small, commercial and residential, totaled $34,064,282. No doubt the efforts of the Town in creating a 1,400-acre Enterprise Zone have begun to bear fruit.
- STAFFING: The Town has 38 full time employees and 3 part time positions. Our employees do an amazing job of providing services to all 5000+ taxpayers living on 25 miles of roads and streets. During a typical year our part-time employees work at the Visitors Center, where we greet thousands of tourists coming to see Chestertown every year.
- REQUESTS OF THE COUNTY COMMISSIONERS: The Mayor and Council continued to follow a formal process of asking the Kent County Commissioners to consider two major requests:
- TAX DIFFERENTIAL/TAX REBATE: For the seventh consecutive year, the Town asked the Commissioners to provide a meaningful tax differential or tax rebate to the Town of Chestertown to compensate taxpayers for planning and zoning services, police coverage, and street maintenance. Within Town limits, these services are paid for by the Town’s tax base, yet Chestertown residents still pay the full county tax rate as if the County funds these services in our community. Kent County is one of only two counties in the State of Maryland that does not provide a tax differential or tax rebate to its incorporated towns, though at one time they did. The Town once again urges the Commissioners to stop the double taxation of Chestertown residents and provide a tax differential or tax rebate to them.
- HOTEL TAX FOR AIR BnBs: Another meaningful loss of revenues to the Town (and to the hotels and registered Beds and Breakfasts in Chestertown) is the loss of hotel tax fees that many Airbnb’s are not paying to Kent County. Not only are they avoiding these fees, but they are also taking business away from businesses that do. The Town passed Ordinance 04-2020 Establishing Chapter 138 Registration of Non-Owner Occupied Short Term Rentals in April, which requires anyone running an Airbnb to register with the Town and pay the Hotel Tax to Kent County. This tax is then reimbursed to the Town of Chestertown.
- CHESTERTOWN MARINA: In April 2020, the Town received a hoped-for final USDA grant in the amount of $445,000.00 for the renovations at Chestertown Marina. This grant enabled the Town to fully pay off an outstanding line of credit for improvements to the property and reimburse the general fund in the amount of $187,000.00 for additional expenses incurred during the construction process.
- MARINA MANAGER: The Town of Chestertown had the extreme good fortune of hiring Paul Coleman to serve as the new Marina Manager after Samantha Branham, the previous manager, took a new job on Kent Island. Samantha did a fantastic job of working with new and returning boaters, establishing protocols for running the facility, and training a young and welcoming staff. Paul seamlessly took over those duties and received rave reviews for his demeanor and knowledge of the job. Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been waiting lists for slips during Tea Party, Jazz Festival, and Downrigging Weekends for 2020. Despite the cancellation of these popular events, there were still numerous weekends where the Marina was completely full, with many boating clubs visiting our port for the very first time. We commend Paul, as well as dockhand Annie Page Brocker, for their hard work and dedication.
- CHESTERTOWN BUSINESS CAMPUS: On the other side of town, Dixon Valve is doing spectacular things on the Business Park Campus. The Campus itself is a 79-acre parcel annexed by the Town in 2016 as part of Chestertown’s 1,187-acre Enterprise Zone. The first of their buildings was a 148,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art warehouse. Their second building, right next door, was a 70,000-square-foot corporate headquarters that fully opened this spring. Next came the 100,000-square-foot BOSS Manufacturing Building, which is currently nearing completion. This fall, there was a groundbreaking for the new Kent County Family YMCA, a 57,000-square-foot facility now under construction on the corner of Scheeler Road and Haacke Drive. This impressive “Y” will undoubtedly be a significant addition to Chestertown and Kent County.
- LUISA D’A CARPENTER PARK AT WASHINGTON PARK: The Town received funding from a DNR Community Parks and Playground Grant in the amount of $138,000 for improvements at Luisa D’A Carpenter Park. Improvements included a basketball court, street lighting, a pavilion, a paved parking area, and significant landscaping. The project was finished this summer and a ribbon cutting was held on September 5, 2020.
- RAIL TRAIL: Phase IV of the Rail Trail has been fully approved by the Maryland Rail Administration for construction and a new grant from the Maryland Bikeways program was received for this last section of trail with a match that will be much more acceptable to the Town’s finances. This project will be put out to bid in early 2021, with the hope of completing the buildout this summer.
- KENT ATTAINABLE HOUSING: Kent Attainable Housing has built a 1,500-square-foot, single-family home for a deserving low-to-moderate income family on College Avenue. The family selected to occupy this new residence will be moving in soon.
- FARMERS AND ARTISANS MARKET: During the early days of COVID, the Town worked with the Farmers and Artisans Market managers to find a safe place that allowed proper distancing for vendors and customers. Fountain Park did not provide the distancing required by the Health Department. The first breakthrough in bringing back the Market came when the owners of East Coast Storage at 848 High Street generously allowed the Market to move to their location on a temporary basis. This worked beautifully for several weeks until a new plan was proposed to close the 200 and 300 blocks of High Street to traffic, creating the separation needed to reopen the markets downtown. This new arrangement was made permanent in December 2020 as it adds a festival-like atmosphere to Chestertown every Saturday. Many of the ideas for COVID-related modifications came from Julie King, who as Manager of the Market has done a truly outstanding job.
- LONG RANGE STATUS OF THE HOSPITAL: The status and existence of our local hospital is a continual concern to the Council. The local “Save the Hospital” group still meets and expresses their concerns about the disappearing functions of the hospital center.
- CURB APPEAL, GARDEN CLUB: This was another banner year for Curb Appeal and the Garden Club. Even though Covid-19 stopped so many things from happening in Town, Curb Appeal and the Garden Club still had the Town looking spectacular.
- REDISTRICTING OF THE COUNCIL WARDS: The Council formed a Ward Redistricting Committee in January 2020 that started its work on Zoom. This made the task of decision making more difficult than expected and their work will continue at full tilt when the 2020 Census results become available in March of 2021. The goal of the Mayor and Council is to finish the redistricting in time for the November elections in 2021.
GOALS FOR 2021:
- Work closely with the Kent County Health Department to ensure that residents and businesses throughout Chestertown follow all safety protocols to protect the health of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Assist in any way possible with educating community members about the COVID-19 vaccine, and help as needed with getting residents vaccinated
- Keep taxes at the same rate if possible while maintaining our chartered service responsibilities
- Continue to stress and ensure that racism cannot continue in our community
- Complete the Redistricting of the Town’s four voting Wards
- Work with the Kent County Commissioners to discuss reinstatement of a tax rebate or tax differential for Chestertown
- Work with the County to generate Hotel Tax revenues from Air B-n-B’s and other forms of room rentals that elude this fee
- Continue our work with businesses, business associations, industries, and institutions to improve the local economy and keep storefronts filled
- Aggressively market Chestertown Marina and work with downtown business owners to develop cross-marketing strategies that encourage visiting boaters to patronize their stores
- Support all events, festivals, and celebrations that bring our Town to life. Hopefully these events will return to enliven Chestertown’s weekends by late summer or early fall of 2021
- Protect the Town’s drinking wells at all costs
- Repave or repair streets as part of a comprehensive, long-term plan
- Complete Phase IV of the Rail Trail to Foxley Manor
- Work with Chestertown’s Main Street program to add directional signage throughout the community
- Work with Washington College, ShoreRivers, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, and community stakeholders to design, engineer, and identify funding sources for the planned waterfront walk along the Chester River on College-owned lands between Wilmer Park and the mouth of Radcliffe Creek
- Work with the medical community, Eastern Shore delegation, Kent County Commissioners, and local residents to advocate for the retention of services at our local Hospital
- Pursue funding for construction of a true Community Playground at Wilmer Park in Chestertown
- Work with the Recreation Commission and adjacent property owners to create a design and funding strategy for improvements at Ajax Pocket Park
- Work with leadership in the Chestertown Police Department to chart a course for the future that ensures maximum coverage for public safety that is financially sustainable
In 2020, the Town and Kent County had approximately 40 deaths attributed to COVID-19. The vast majority of these fatalities were attributable to outbreaks that occurred in two of the community’s nursing homes at the start of the pandemic (March/April/May). The Mayor and Council send out prayers and condolences to the many families that lost loved ones.
The community also lost three individuals who served the Town government itself in a dedicated fashion. Their impact will not be forgotten. Those lost were Margo Bailey, who served first on the Town Council and then as Mayor of Chestertown for 20 years; Marty Stetson, three term Councilman from the 4th Ward; and Joan Merryman, our incredible administrative assistant who served the Town for 30 years.
THANKS TO THE TOWN STAFF:
Lastly, while the Mayor and Council often get the most press relating to Town affairs, it is the Town’s employees that keep everything operating smoothly on a day-to-day basis and serve as the face of the Town government for the majority of our constituency. This includes the staff at Town Hall, the street crew, the utilities department, and the Chestertown Police Department. Thank you for your dedication to Chestertown, your professionalism, and your determination to continue to provide essential services to our residents during a very challenging year.