Council President details accomplishments of the Martin Administration

It is my privilege to serve as a Member of the Havre de Grace City Council, which has included serving under three Mayors (Correri, Dougherty and Martin); as well being selected by my Council colleagues to serve as the Council President three of the five years that I have served on the City Council, once under former Mayor Dougherty, and the last two years under Mayor Martin.

As our citizens prepare to vote on May 2nd, I felt compelled to share my perspective on a variety of topics that have demonstrated solid leadership by your elected officials, including those who seek re-election. Albeit a bit lengthy, my commentary will be based on (as Sgt. Joe Friday used to say) “just the facts.” (The post baby boomer generation may have to google that)

At Mayor Martin’s first Directors meeting- after taking office, the Mayor instructed ALL of his Directors that ANY information requested by the City Council (with the exception of Personnel Information), will be provided- in its entirety, with no questions asked. Mayor Martin’s theory then as it is now, is collaboration and transparency between the Mayor’s Office and the Council allows for a straight forward dialogue, free from any political maneuvering or ulterior motives. Transparency breeds trust and enriches the ability to create a synergy and focus on goals and objectives.

Mayor Martin’s list of accomplishments over the last two years is a testimony of his leadership (not management) style that “leads” and does not “micro manage”. The City of Havre de Grace employs and pays a very good wage to a very talented group of Directors that do not need to be “micro-managed’ and are very capable to carry out the mission and vision of the Mayor and Council.

What has Mayor Martin Accomplished?

  1. He made Green initiatives a priority from the first day on the job.
“we are increasing tourism while at the same time encouraging green travel.” — Mayor Martin
  • After inheriting a $187,500 EPA fine for Storm Water violations; the Mayor’s team negotiated and reduced the fine and agreed to fast track a number of Storm Water Projects ( one of which will have a direct positive impact on the Bay Brook community and will help manage storm water into Lily Run). These projects are underway either in the engineering or implementation phase.
  • The Mayor and Council aggressively negotiated with off-site solar energy producers a long term strategy whereby ALL City Buildings are now part of the solar energy grid. As we complete our first full year- the Finance Department will be able to provide an overall “dollar savings” in utility costs- which has a direct positive impact on the bottom line of the budget.
  • Deployed the necessary resources and supported Council in being recognized as “Sustainable Maryland City”
  • Promoted and invested in our Farmers Market, with a venue change that (doubled) the Farmers Market participants from less than 20 — to more than 40.
  • Made available additional unused City owned land for the Community gardens program, including an area that will become an established Food Forest
  • Purchased two Electric Cars to be used by City Hall and Code Enforcement with funds from a 2% cash back program on the City Credit Cards
  • Installed an electric vehicle charging station at David Craig Park

2. Economic Development

  • Completed the Downtown Lighting project- which not only enhances the downtown street scape, but also the local businesses as well.
  • Developed a Marketing campaign “Discover Your Maryland in Havre de Grace”, which has gained recognition in Annapolis with both the Governor and Comptroller’s Office
  • Included ALL Havre de Grace businesses a free listing in the Havre de Grace Destination Guide, terminating the previous practice of charging each merchant a fee to advertise.
  • Partnered in with our County Economic Development group, to promote Havre de Grace in the Harford County residence Guide as a destination, not only to visit but to live
  • Redoubled the efforts to advertise on Multiple Comcast Cable Networks as well as our local stations WBAL and WJZ
  • Initiated an advertising campaign that also promotes Havre de Grace downtown and signature events on billboards throughout Harford and Cecil County
  • With the talent of those employees working at City Hall- a quantifiable digital and social media advertising and marketing plan was developed, and has resulted in a highly positive response.
  • The Economic Development Department has implemented strategic initiatives for business outreach and relocation efforts for downtown, Route 40 and the Industrial Park, with a primary target of high volume water users.

3. Park Systems

  • Assigned a Commission and based on those recommendations, and securing more than $200,000 in grant funding, have started improvements at Tydings Park , including a new sidewalk along Commerce Street, increased special needs parking, new “all inclusive “ playground equipment and the enhancements and rededication of the City’s WWI Memorial
“when this project is completed, we will have a safe, all-access playground for children, including those with mobility constraints.” — Mayor Martin
  • Completion of and the dedication of Veteran’s Park
  • Concept and completion of the K9 Cody Dog Park
  • Through a bond bill, that was overwhelmingly supported by the voters, the City increased its waterfront park inventory to include the Water Street property

4. Arts & Entertainment

  • Committed to and supports the Public Art Committee initiatives
  • Suggested and supported the Bond Bill to complete the Opera House Cultural Arts Building, which was overwhelmingly supported by the voters
  • Incubated several new Festival concepts that generated capital for a number of the City’s non-profits, which will be transitioned to the City’s non-profits.
  • Installed the Hutchins Park Tent venue

While the aforementioned accomplishments are immense, the true testimony of Mayor Martin’s accomplishments include the immediacy in which he addressed two very unpopular and recurring financial challenges that have faced our City: (5) The Water & Sewer Challenges, and (6) The rising costs of healthcare and the unsustainable employee wage and benefits costs.

5. Water & Sewer Challenges

Operations — Besides the well-publicized debt obligations which have continued to plague the City and cause rate increases, the new Mayor inherited a very unfavorable MDE audit report that identified a number of process and procedural audit items ; additionally, questions were raised in the Water Sewer Commission Report as to whether adequate capital improvement was occurring, as well as if preventive measures were being taken to assure redundant systems were in place and critical components were “on the shelf”, so as not to cause a total failure in water production. Based on those two critical pieces of information, Mayor Martin immediately engaged in the services of an independent auditor, who found the plant was operating on back-up systems, and critical components were not on the shelf ready to go should a systemic failure occur. Additionally, a number of efficiency issues were discovered, whereby an unnecessary amount of waste was occurring and resources were not being maximized. Through the committed hard work of many, corrections have occurred with all systems repaired, back-up systems are in place and critical components are now available. With additional capital improvements planned. Efficiencies have been made, that have realized savings in the amount of about $250,000. Mayor Martin and the Council placed a Bond Bill before the citizens in 2016, which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters and will provide the necessary resources to improve the operation, efficiency and capacity of the Water Plant.

Water & Sewer Debt

Since being elected, Mayor Martin has reduced the Water & Sewer Fund balance from -2,287,693 to -497,500. A deficit reduction of $1,014,610.11 or 44%

— The annual debt obligation is $2.2M. For more than the last 8 years the payment model used depends on an unrealistic 100 new user “connection fees” annually. This model has and will continue to require large sums of money to be borrowed from the General Fund (Tax payer revenues) to pay the debt. In 2015 this Mayor and Council had the courage to make changes and employ other methods to generate revenues and eliminate the dependence on a flawed debt model which was based simply on the “HOPE” that 100 connections would occur annually. Part of the plan was to create a debt service fee that was used to offset 25% of the debt, as well as changes in key leadership roles that aggressively created efficiencies and cost savings in the Water & Sewer Fund. In addition, it was determined that a 25+ year old water agreement required the City, to “sell massive amounts of water to a customer at a significant loss”. The Mayor and Council agreed to pay a termination fee to end the agreement this September, and a renewal agreement is underway, as is the increased sale of water to customers outside the City. Albeit the debt service fee was slated to sunset at the end of this Fiscal Year , the Water & Sewer Commission and City Council agreed the fee must remain and be reviewed at the end of the 2018 fiscal year. The option to remove the debt service fee would not be fiscally responsible, until such time as other revenue can make up the $525K. Removing the $525K would only require the rates to be adjusted up to make up for the short fall, and quite frankly we did not want to play that “shell game.” The bottom line is the debt is the debt, and the only way to raise more revenue is (a) create more fees, (b) raise the rates or (c) sell more water with the capacity that is available. We have the capacity to sell more water and we will sell more water. While other options have been discussed, such as “restructure the debt”- this will only increase the term, the amount of the payback and only “kick the can further down the road”. Some constituents suggested that we simply ask MDE to forgive the debt altogether, which we will (and have in the past), but more likely than not- this will not be approved- or would be approved in part, with a commitment from the City to raise the rates.

6. Healthcare and Employee Benefits & Compensation

As we all have experienced over the last 4–6 years, there has been a struggle with rising Healthcare costs, and it is no different with the City. The year prior to Mayor Martin taking office, a budget was submitted to Council which proved to be the most challenging yet, as it proposed that funds would be removed from the Emergency Fund so that expenses could be met, which included the annual 4% employee wage increase, as well as the continuance of the City funding each employee’s pension; to maintain a 90% contribution to each employee’s healthcare costs, as well as a $2,000.00 per employee contribution to a Health Savings Account. This best demonstrated the severity of rising employee costs, coupled with the flat or reduced revenues the City was facing due to lower assessments on property values. At that time the Council made the necessary cuts in services to protect the Legislatively required Emergency Fund Dollars. This was the impetus of a legislative action to appoint a City Employee Wage and Benefits Commission. The mission of the Commission was to evaluate the current Employee benefits and wages and make a recommendation back to the Mayor and Council. The Commission is made up of citizens who have experience in such matters. Mayor Martin appointed a Commission, who have since worked diligently over the last 18 months and have developed a “Sustainable” wage plan for both the Civilian and Police Department. The wage plan is included in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, and offers competitive wages and increases that are comparable to other municipalities; it offers the Police Department increases to enhance recruitment, retention and an augmentation for those officers that are involved in specialized operations, such as SWAT, K9 and the Criminal Investigation Division.

I raise the two aforementioned challenges only because it takes true leadership and courage to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons rather than relying on the “status quo” and/or “hope” and/or “leave it for the next administration”. I can tell you, it isn’t glamorous and it isn’t popular when you have to implement a fee or address the rising costs of employee benefits to your friends and your neighbors. But that is what we are elected to do; it is strategic in the sense that is what is best for our City; and it is Leadership! I believe that is why my friends and neighbors have relied on me to serve them, and that is why I am equally proud to serve with this Mayor and this Council. I plan to support Mayor Martin for two more years, along with Council Member Martin and Council Member Worrell.

Stephen Gamatoria

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