Public servant has many masters

Circuit: A roving town manager is providing the needed expertise to keep fading Shore towns afloat.

January 10, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SUDLERSVILLE - Dale Mumford travels light, toting a laptop, a briefcase and a wealth of governmental experience to little towns like this rural crossroads that punctuates the flat brown expanse of corn and soy bean fields in northeastern Queen Anne's County.

It's just one stop for the circuit-riding town manager who traverses the Eastern Shore, sorting out the nitty-gritty details of self-governance in places where there are barely enough citizens to run for office or volunteer on boards and commissions.

Mumford begins his week studying an annexation proposal that could double the 391 population of Sudlersville, whose main claim to fame is hometown slugger Jimmie Foxx, a member of baseball's Hall of Fame. That's his statue down at Church and Main streets.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Mumford will likely be in Goldsboro, Marydel or Henderson, three bedraggled former railroad towns that are Caroline County's poorest communities, population 216, 147 and 118, respectively.

Handling everything from grant applications to budgets to the minutiae of zoning rules, the 57-year-old Mumford is a one-man staff for tiny burgs.

"The hope is that we'll be able to halt the decline of these little towns," says Mumford, who spent most of his professional life as a government administrator under three county executives across the Chesapeake Bay in Anne Arundel County. "We could really lose a way of life. Oftentimes, it's not so much having expertise, but just another able body to help get things done."

It's hard to imagine how Henderson, with an annual budget of $21,000, could keep going without Mumford, says Mayor Sandy Cook, who doubles as a $100-a-month town clerk. A grant pays for the manager to come for eight to 10 hours a month, at roughly $20 an hour.

Neighbors often stop by Cook's house to pay their water bills or to complain about problems. She mails a notice to every household in town to alert them about council meetings and public hearings. But it's Mumford who balances the town checkbook and monitors the company that runs its water system.

"We're so small, but we've got the same problems as everybody else," says Cook, who stops in almost daily at Henderson's two-room town hall, which has no rest room or running water. "I was basically trying to run the town by myself before Dale."

Henderson, where the median household income is just more than $15,000 a year, has its own water supply, but like Marydel and Goldsboro, needs sewage service, Mumford says. In the three towns, lots are too small to replace existing septic systems, some of which have been failing for years.

"You have a $1 million water system in Henderson and only 53 houses paying $75 a quarter," Mumford says. "When you send a notice about somebody being late on a water bill, you know you're going to see that person face-to-face the next day. The system's only three years old, but who knows how they'll pay for maintenance every 10 years."

Program at risk

Mumford is one of four circuit riders who sweat the details for a dozen small towns in five Eastern Shore counties, a 20-year-old program sponsored by the nonprofit service agency, Maryland Rural Development Corp.

Grants from the state's Department of Housing and Community Development are funneled through MRDC. In most cases, the money is matched by the towns and county governments.

This year's budget for the four part-time circuit riders is about $57,000, says R. Kevin Brooks, the agency's executive director. With the current budget woes in Annapolis, no one is sure where the money will come from next year, he says.

"This really is democracy at its most basic level," says Brooks. "You've got local officials making decisions on issues that will have lasting, long-term effects for these communities. Three of the four circuit riders we have now have experience as elected officials in small towns, and that's a plus."

Three years ago in Marydel, a cluster of about 147 houses with equal numbers on either side of the Maryland-Delaware border, local officials were so frustrated about residents' apathy that town commission members threatened to resign - which would have cost the town its charter to operate as a municipality.

Alicia Poppiti, president of the commission, credits Mumford with at least easing the burden for working parents like her who have been willing to donate their time.

"Everybody works, everybody has kids, everybody is too busy to devote a lot more time," says Poppiti, 37, who works at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church. "Now, we have somebody who knows the ins and outs, who knows the other towns, who knows how to help us."

`Simple things'

Seemingly mundane problems in Goldsboro illustrate the problems of many small towns, says Mumford.

"Goldsboro has a nice park, but the tennis court needs repair," he says. "There's no one to put up a new net. There's nobody to rake the leaves or paint the town office. Sometimes, it's simple things."

In 1992, Mumford, a native of Salisbury, took an early retirement offer in Anne Arundel, where had worked as the criminal justice coordinator and deputy superintendent of the county jail, among other jobs.

With his wife, Betty Jean, an elementary school teacher in Caroline County, Mumford settled in the town of Ridgely, population 1,352, where he served a term on the town council.

Like many local officials and government planners, Mumford sees a surge of change headed toward towns such as Sudlersville, where annexation of surrounding farmland will clear the way for housing developments of commuters willing to drive long distances to work.

"We have to look ahead and protect the way of life here in these towns," Mumford says. "I'm just a pair of hands to help handle whatever tomorrow's issue will be."

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