Salisbury, Wicomico may merge

January 15, 1995|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

SALISBURY -- Merging the governments of Salisbury, which is the Eastern Shore's largest town and has independently governed itself 263 years, and surrounding Wicomico County is likely to receive serious consideration beginning this month.

Such a merger, which is subject to voters' approval and almost certainly faces months of debate and analysis, could mean that Maryland's 11th largest town would abandon its charter.

If that were to happen, Salisbury, with a population of 21,000, would become the state's largest municipality to voluntarily give up its incorporation since Ellicott City in Howard County repealed its charter for financial reasons during the Depression.

Business and civic leaders in Salisbury have talked informally for years about combining the two governments. But opposition, particularly from city officials, has been strong. Recent political and economic changes have won new converts, however, including longtime Salisbury Mayor W. Paul Martin.

"For many years, I fought it because I didn't see the advantages," said Mr. Martin, who has been mayor since 1982. "Now I think the idea needs to be explored."

Under some merger proposals, Salisbury residents would pay one local property tax, instead of two, although how much of a tax cut, if any, would result is unclear. Some tax cuts would seem logical, given that duplicated services such as police, sewer, water and fire protection, would likely be consolidated.

As complicated as the path toward a merger appears, factors nevertheless pointing to it include:

* The County Council is expected to consider a draft letter at its Tuesday meeting proposing the idea to the city.

* The public elected at least one county politician in November whose platform openly advocated merger.

* Pressures from Salisbury's business community point toward vTC one countywide local government, excluding possibly a couple of tiny towns, as being more efficient and productive.

* Legally forced changes in Salisbury's charter that resulted in 1993 in a loss of voting eligibility for town property owners whose residence was outside town limits.

Support for at least studying some form of government merger is expected from a panel of local residents that has spent the past three years trying to determine Wicomico's needs by the year 2020, when the county's current population of 70,000 is predicted to double.

"We're looking at government, infrastructure, the environment -- everything," said Herbert H. Fincher, head of the county's Quarter Century Committee. "We've got towns, including Salisbury, bumping into each other. We're going to need a countywide, central government sometime soon."

After the charter change, 327 people who owned property in Salisbury but lived outside city limits no longer could go to the polls for city elections. The amendment affected only about 4 percent of the voters, but many of those who lost their vote were active in city business and civic matters.

"A lot of these folks got the perception that Salisbury was not so favorable to them," said Victor H. Laws Sr., a county councilman who campaigned in part on merging the two governments. "They felt left out of the city process."

Salisbury's business community, which had always carried considerable political muscle in city affairs, has been miffed lately, too, by what it believes to be an anti-business mood on the council.

Merger proponents at the county government level have drafted a letter asking the City Council to help study what, if any, facets of the two governments could be combined. If the letter is approved -- the seven-member County Council is expected to see the letter at its Tuesday meeting -- copies will be sent to all Wicomico municipalities.

The invitation is likely to get a lukewarm reception from some City Council members.

"I think the city and the county could do more in the way of sharing offices, but I think Salisbury is a distinct political and social entity," said Robert Caldwell, who was elected council president in December.

He said he is willing to consider a tax differential to ease the burden on city property owners. But, he added, Salisbury should not consider giving up its authority to govern itself. The city manages an overall budget of about $20 million and has 340 employees.

Mr. Caldwell conceded that the council has developed a reputation as anti-business, but insisted the description is inaccurate.

"What we have is a council that's very diverse," he said. "We had some rubber-stamping [in favor of business] in the past. Now we're concerned about the environment and other matters. But there is no anti-business climate on the council."

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