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Mayors Making Waves

Jul 03, 2014 09:15AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds

By Mark R. Smith, Contributing Writer

It’s what’s heard during every election cycle: The candidates all know what’s right for their city, town, or jurisdiction; their opponents don’t.

That said, a spirited effort by an agent for change (sometimes known as a relative political newcomer) can often result in that candidate winning an election and the progress that the winning candidate promised on the campaign trail.

That spirit of change is in the air in three towns that dot the map of the Upper Chesapeake: on the Eastern Shore in Denton, in Caroline County, and in nearby Chestertown, in Kent; and across the Bay Bridge in Annapolis, with 30-year-old Mike Pantelides manning the helm.

Pantelides, who has a background in various areas of government relations, is also the first Republican mayor elected in the state capital in 30 years. Like Chestertown’s Chris Cerino and Dennis Porter of Denton, he has his own ideas about moving forward.

Plethora of Projects

Though Pantelides is young by most anyone’s standards to be running a city of 38,000 citizens, he’s still keenly aware that most any evolution in a storied, 300-year-old city like Annapolis will have its challenges: most notably, of course, the budget.

One of the major issues the new mayor is addressing is upgrading the infrastructure at the City Dock, which calls for replacing the bulkhead, concrete, and wood pilings. “The public works projects, I think, will be the most important,” he says, estimating the price tag for that project at $6.5 million, with the update of the water treatment facility on Route 450 expected to run $40 million.

In a historic city where available land is at a premium, building successful commercial and residential real estate projects is especially critical. Consider, for instance, the former Fawcett property on Compromise Street, adjacent the City Dock.

The once-proposed 2.5-story building at the site “would have required some zoning changes,” Pantelides says, noting that the developer who proposed that project pulled out the day he was elected. “However, we still have to find a good use” for the land, which is owned by various owners. A committee is studying what to do with the small parcel.

A slightly less conspicuous, but much larger priority is the open-discussed Crystal Spring mixed-use project, which is slated to rise near the intersection at Forest Drive and Spa Road. It was proposed to be built on more than 120 acres on the largest contiguous unbuilt forest within the city limits.

“Developers want to build in the city because they can get water and septic,” Pantelides says. “So be it, but I think the [current proposal] is too big for that location.” He said the city is waiting on a review of the builder’s plan from local attorney Alan Hyatt, the Lutheran Church, and the property owner, Janet K. Richardson-Pearson.

That Valuable Waterfront

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A key theme of Pantelides’ campaign was tax relief. Once elected, he laid off 11 workers, eliminated 20 positions (including some department heads), cut funding to some community groups and even cut expenditures for office furniture. “I also want to lower water bills by 15 percent by the end of my term,” he says.

All told, he’s managed to cut spending by about $7 million and his first budget—of $97.5 million—is being discussed by the finance committee.

Dealing with a deteriorating waterfront is also among the issues in Chestertown. Chris Cerino, who took over the city’s top job last January, says “nothing has been done during the past two years to improve it, so we’ve issued an RFP for the dredging. The town also held a charrette in late May to begin the design process for what’s estimated to be a $1 million-plus contract.

But the long-term goal is to work with local economic generator Washington College to develop 15 acres of waterfront property for a mixed-use academic campus. It’s planned to span from the town’s main historic thoroughfare, High Street, through an updated Chestertown Marina and Wilmer Park, continuing though three properties of 10 acres that were recently purchased by the college.

While the image of those various entities connecting will be an eye-catching feature, Cerino is also addressing an undercurrent in the bay town of 5,000 residents. “There was a perceived disconnect between businesses and city leaders,” he says. “We’re in the midst of holding roundtables to see what we can do to improve that issue.”

Like any effective leader in a small-yet-significant bayside town, Cerino knows what drives the quality of life, as well as local industry. “We’re also ready to send out an RFP to revamp our web site to promote eco and heritage tourism,” he says, “which are two big components of our economy.”

Unlike Pantelides, who runs a city with 650 employees, Cerino isn’t looking to revamp the local roster of approximately 50 people.

“Our people are doing a good job. For instance, our city manager, Bill Ingersoll, has been here for 30 years. As a part-time mayor, I need his input. He does a great job with acquiring grants,” Cerino says, noting that funding for many of Chestertown’s quality of life projects don’t come from its $3.4 million budget, but rather from state programs.

Here Comes the Sun

Image titleDennis Porter, the mayor of Denton, came to the position in January 2013 after serving a decade on the city council. Most of the recent issues have been typical, concerning balancing the budget and maintaining the roads, and water and sewer.

“Our biggest issue concerns the decrease in tax assessments, so likewise our taxes,” Porter says. “We’ve been struggling to maintain our services in lieu of that problem.”

So far, that’s meant cutting all non-essential expenditures. “We’re not replacing anything we don’t have to,” Porter says, “and we’re adding a solar energy field” in Denton Industrial Park, which is located behind a key area business, Tanglewood Conservatories.

“We expect that to save a tremendous amount of money for the city from the Choptank Electric bill. We’re also trying to build a second solar field to save on our bill from Delmarva Power, which serves the older part of town,” he says. “So, we have to find a place in the older, well-developed part of town, or even on a rooftop, that can support the construction and capacity.” While Porter acknowledged that the move won’t initially save much money, “we’ll lock in the rate for 20 years, so later, the savings will be significant,” toward balancing the town’s budget, which now stands at $3.5 million.

The other big project in Denton is buying the former People’s Bank building and renovating it for the new Town Hall. “PNC closed and it’s been sitting vacant for four years,” Porter says, “but it’s in good shape.”

Initial Shock

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Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, has seen new mayors come into office, and offered some basic advice to Porter, Cerino, Pantelides or anyone else who’s new in the mayor’s office.

“What their success comes down to is how well they call plays for a team when they take over a municipality,” Hancock says. “The coach is the mayor, working in concert with the city council; and the city manager calls the plays and oversees the professionals who run the departments, who are all trained to implement their knowledge in their respective areas.”

What Hancock has often seen is the newly-elected who may not be in a state of shock, but who may well be in a state of surprise. “They often will think to themselves, ‘Oh my gosh, I won.’ But the key is to run their team,” he says. “They need the right people in place to create consensus.”

One that note, Hancock confirms that of the 850 elected municipal officials in Maryland, most of them didn’t have much municipal experience before they were elected. However, regardless of experience, those who are the most successful are those who can build their team.

“They have a vision, they have a strategic plan, they delegate,” he says, “and it’s all in the best interests of the citizens they serve.”
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