Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Each year a pre-legislative public meeting is held to give citizens an opportunity to present concerns, make suggestions or ask questions of their Delegation. At this year's December 3 meeting, Senator George Edwards, Delegate Wendell Beitzel, and Mark Widmyer, Governor Hogan's Western Maryland liaison were present to greet a good showing of county residents anxious to interact with their representatives in Annapolis. Kim McMillan joined the team to record comments and assist with followup information.
Issues addressed included the economy and taxes, minimum wage, paid sick leave, fair scheduling, liquor laws, shoreline erosion, Wolf Den Run State Park, broadband, and Maryland television. A full audio recording can be heard here and a written summary is below.
Delegate Beitzel was recently re-elected to represent Garrett County for the next four years. The 2018 Maryland General Assembly marked his 12th year in the Maryland House of Delegates. Senator Edwards ran unopposed on the November ballot and will enter his next four-year term in the Maryland Senate.
Edwards shared that the commissioners requested a $72,500 bond bill for the Garrett County Animal Shelter for building upgrades and $40,000 for a dormitory roof repair at Garrett College, and another $60,000 for a Comprehensive Document Management System for Garrett College. The bond bills would have a 15-year life expectancy.
Another $1 million was requested to dredge the cove at Arrowhead in McHenry using a 50/50 matching grant.
Beitzel reminded everyone that he and Edwards are readily available and they welcome any comments or concerns.
Delegate Wendell Beitzel
800-492-7122, ext. 3435
Senator George Edwards
800-492-7122, ext. 3565.
Mike Bell was first to speak requesting the Delegation consider local and state economic issues. In light of recent discussion by the Board of Education considering school closings and consolidations, Bell suggested the wealth formula for Garrett County be looked at. "Nobody is addressing that distribution or allocation issue," said Bell, referring to a recent commissioners' meeting where the topic was raised. Bell also pointed out that Garrett County's accommodations tax lags behind other counties at 6 percent. The county is considering a 2 percent rise in the tax which could amount to an additional $800,000 going to the County's general fund. The average accommodations tax in Maryland is currently 5.9 percent. "Maryland is the 5th worst state for retirees," a fact Bell recently read about. "One of the major elements in that ranking is the way they treat retirement income versus some of the neighboring states." He said retirees may be relocating across state lines to Pennsylvania rather than Florida to simply protect their retirement dollars.
"What it all boils down to is they have fiscal notes," Beitzel explained in response to bills that would reduce tax consequences for retirees or veterans as an example. "What we look at is the total amount of what that impact would be on the state budget and the bigger the number is, the harder it is to get anything pushed through," Beitzel said some tax benefits have already been adopted for veterans incrementally. "I would like to ask you all to think about the idea of having a state tax study in the state of Maryland that can take a look at how our state and local revenue system has evolved," Bell requested. He felt it was important to understand how Maryland is raising money through taxes given the incremental changes of the state's economy and the demographic makeup of the state. Bell suggested the state is lacking and overall strategy with the last tax studies conducted 20 years ago. He underscored the importance of a tax system that is formed in fairness and competitiveness for jobs and families. Beitzel said he supports the tax on hunting licenses since it can amount to a significant amount in State and Federal funding for wildlife programs. Taxes on ammunition and gun sales go toward state budgets for wildlife management. "All of our DNR (Department of Natural Resources) opperations comes from that money," Beitzel explained. "Anything we do in excess has to come out of the general fund."
Debbe Owston, representing the Garrett County Liquor Board, shared several "housekeeping" requests with the Delegation. Her first request was to repeal a bill from 1947 that requires a one-year residency prior to applying for a liquor license.
Another request was to repeal a law that prohibits out-of-state license holders permitted to serve in "taverns" from being granted a liquor license in Garrett County. Also amending the draft beer license would allow applicants to choose an "option" to an existing or new applicant license rather than holding two separate licenses. Application fees would remain the same.
Owston also requested that nonprofits seeking a license to serve alcohol not be required to have a public hearing but allow new licenses to be granted in an administrative hearing. She also requested that nonprofits be able to make a request for serving at multiple events through a single administrative request and then notify the board as each licensed event is scheduled.
Tim Klein asked for clarification on COMAR (Code of Maryland Regulations) regarding Deep Creek Lake. He shared that North Glad Cove has been closed off to 26-foot boats rather than setting restrictions based on a boat's size and weight. Klein asked for more specific guidelines for boat owners to avoid fines stemming from unclear restriction.
Klein also requested that "At-Will" employment be abolished. At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason (that is, without having to establish "just cause" for termination), and without warning, as long as the reason is not illegal. When an employee is acknowledged as being hired "at will," courts deny the employee any claim for loss resulting from the dismissal. Klein said it creates a "revolving door" for employment rather than giving employees sufficient notice to find a new job before being left without a paycheck.
Edwards pointed out that his own assistant is an At-Will employee, explaining that at the federal level, it's nearly impossible to let someone go if you're unhappy with their job performance.
Frank Shap, a former employee with Garrett County Department of Economic Development looked for clarification about a rumor circulating that the Delegation would seek an exception to the fracking ban bill exclusively for Garrett and Allegany Counties. "This rumor has been connected with you, Wendell, and especially during the recent campaign," said Shap, stressing it was a still just a rumor. Shap then said the issue surfaced on the Delegate's Facebook page where he was asked for a simple "yes or no" and whether he has been involved in plans for such an exception pertaining to fracking. "This question was posed to him [Beitzel] by several people, including myself," said Shap. "But, unfortunately, the question was not answered directly or at all." The rumor caused some concern for the constituency in the County according to Shap. "Tonight, I would ask each of you to address the question with a simple 'yes' or 'no'. Is there an effort to seek an exception for Garrett County or any part of Allegany County to the statewide fracking ban in the House or the Senate? Or are there conversations with the Governor to try to move forward with such an exception," Shap concluded? Beitzel responded to Shap by saying, "Thank you for your comments on Facebook. They were really, really gentlemanly questions and I think fairly rudely presented. Beitzel implied that Shap had already answered his own question on Facebook." You said that since you [Beitzel] didn't answer me I assumed the answer is 'Yes'," Beitzel said. The Delegate went on to say that since Shap had drawn his own conclusion he could "go ahead and live with that if you want to." Shap responded by stating that a lack of response was the reason for asking the question in the public meeting. Beitzel continued by stating Facebook isn't necessarily the proper medium for presenting things. "If you had come to me personally...I think we've known each other long enough, you can approach me personally to discuss it." Beitzel added that "one woman" in the room had posed the question initially. "As I said before...This issue is pretty well settled,"
Beitzel added that support from the Maryland General Assembly would be required to pass such legislation. "Even if I had a thought of doing that, Senator Edwards would have to support it before I would even think about putting it [an exception] in, and number two, the chances of getting it through the General Assembly would be slim to none." Beitzel said he felt it would be a waste of time to submit a bill to amend the current ban legislation. "I have no thoughts, no intentions. I have not discussed it with anybody or tell anybody I was going to do that. I did not meet with the Governor to talk about," Beitzel snapped. "I'm not going to say never unless something changes and they [the gas industry] have a new method that wouldn't require fracking or something that would be considered for natural gas development. I certainly would consider it." Beitzel went on to defend the work of the oil and gas industry that is producing at an all-time high and beginning to export more fossil fuels rather than importing from foreign countries "who mostly hate us" as he put it. Shap asked to rebut Beitzel's characterization that his comments were "rude" and was denied the opportunity. Beitzel said the exchange can be viewed on Facebook and Edwards reminded everyone that the meeting was not a platform for debate. Edwards offered his response to the same question. "No. Nobody's thinking about it. Nobody's talking about it." He broadened his statement to include the entire District 1 Delegation and the Governor.
Brenda McDonnell came prepared to address three labor and employment issues. She owns and operates three food establishments in McHenry, Brenda's Pizzeria, Trader's Coffee House, and Ace's Run Restaurant & Pub.
She began by discussing The Fair Scheduling bill. "What the heck. That's not going to work," McDonnell said. "We have tried. We have even tried in the past year of scheduling employees for three weeks and it doesn't work." She said that even when employee schedules are posted, in a matter of 10 minutes it will all be changed.
The Fair Scheduling bill requires employers to provide employees with specified estimates and work schedules within time periods and notify employees of changes to schedules. If schedules change, the employer is still obligated to compensate employees for scheduled times regardless of whether the employee has worked those scheduled hours.
She also asked that the Mandatory Sick Leave requirement be amended to require workers to be employed for a minimum of 120 days or to exclude seasonal workers who may be employed short-term to cover peak seasons. "It hasn't hurt me personally right now as bad as what it will in January and February."
Under the law, Maryland businesses with 15 or more employees are required to provide up to five days of paid sick leave per year, while businesses with fewer than 15 employees must give unpaid leave. One hour of leave is earned for every 30 hours worked, according to the law.
Minimum wage, starting at $15 an hour is also a major concern for McDonnell. "I'm happy to say that the only people we start at minimum wage is usually a dishwasher and that's only because they have to work their way up the ranks," she explained. McDonnell said the increased wages will impact everyone and the cost of doing business. Food prices will have to increase to offset wage increases, according to McDonnell.
Edwards assured McDonnell that the Fair Scheduling and the Minimum Wage bills would be put forward again since the legislators who sponsored the bills have been re-elected to serve in the next General Assembly.
Regarding the Sick Leave bill, Edwards said that some legislators have a misconception that "One size fits all and sometimes you have to massage things." He pointed out that in less robust, rural economies you can price yourself out of business to keep up with operating costs. "It's rather tough, particularly for rural parts of the state," Edwards said.
Nicole Christian is the President and CEO of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. Each year the Chamber assembles a laundry list of legislative priorities they feel will benefit local businesses and the tourism economy. Christian chose to present the top five in the public meeting. The Chamber opposes any minimum wage increase which was just raised to $10.10 in July of 2018. "Businesses, especially small business are still making those adjustments," Christian said. The Chamber has been working with several Western Maryland economic groups to assess the minimum wage issue. "Overall, what we are hearing is that this will have devastating impacts." She also pointed out the neighboring states do not have anywhere near a $15 minimum wage and West Virginia is currently offering $8.75, slightly less than Maryland. Proponents of raising the minimum wage claim it will attract workers across state lines, however, Christian was skeptical it would have that effect since Maryland is paying more than Pennsylvania and West Virginia already. The wage scale for businesses is another issue Christian said could be problematic. If a business has a variety of positions paid by skill or experience and the lowest paid employee is making $14 an hour, new hires at more than the lowest wage-earners will then impact all wages above the entry-level positions. Christian is also awaiting a survey that was circulated to get a general feel about how raising the minimum wage could impact businesses. They are expecting results by the end of the year to help them with supporting arguments against a wage increase. The Chamber is also supporting Association Health Plans which are currently excluding small businesses from participating. "In June of this year, the US Department of Labor ruled that association health plans under Obamacare could be put back into effect and it also allows sole proprietors," shared Christian.
Generally, association health plans will lower the cost by spreading out the risk over a broader group of members. Other Chamber groups in Maryland will be joining the Garrett County Chamber in an effort to reinstate Association Health Plans. Christian also addressed a bill that could benefit Deep Creek Lake. Edwards submitted The State Lakes Protection Fund bill and Beitzel lent support in the house in 2018. The original bill called for $3 million but the General Assembly accepted a reduced funding total at just $1 million. Christian thanked them for their leadership roles and requested an additional $2 million be added to the fund to meet the original request and remove the "sunset" date on funding the bill. Christian echoed McDonell's request to amend the Paid Sick Leave bill to make it more practical for employers. As a final request, Christian addressed a shoreline erosion bill that failed to pass in the last legislative session. It included application fees for homeowners taking measures to reduce soil erosion at a water's edge. Since homeowners don't technically own the land, she said the fees that would go to DNR (Department of Natural Resource) would just add to an expense already assumed by individual homeowners. Beitzel requested that anyone who's already taken measures to deal with shoreline erosion to contact him to share their experience so he can use first-hand accounts as examples to help support the bill in the next session. Other legislative requests can be found on the Chamber of Commerce website.
Mike Dreisbach is the owner of Savage River Lodge, Cornucopia Café, and Grants Mercantile and is also an active member of Garrett Trails. He too opposes the Paid Sick Leave bill. "We have 90 employees," Dreisbach said. "And they have paid time off. It's paid sick leave, time for doctors, vacation, and whatever but they're truly people who work 30 to 32 hours a week." He said both Beitzel and Edwards need to "ratchet it up" to make the bill more friendly to small business owners. He offered his help to testify in Annapolis to amend the bill. He also opposes the proposed $15 minimum wage stating he wouldn't pay a kid out of high school that much to dip ice cream. Dreisbach requested that the Delegation take steps to make the Association Health Plans mentioned by Christian a reality in Maryland. "I know it's illegal," He said, "But it [the law] could be changed." Dreisbach feels there would be enough people to create a county association plan to lower health care costs for small businesses. His next request was to abolish an old law that prohibits the sale of deer antlers or products from which they are made. Dreisbach said the craft trade is a significant draw for tourism and there are crafters that bring items such as jewelry made from antlers that they can't sell in Maryland, yet they can elsewhere. He feels this is a lost opportunity for vendors. Dreisbach then challenged the Delegation to secure funding for Wolf Den Run State Park. "If we let DNR do it, they'll screw it up," he said to Edward and Betizel. "We need infrastructure down there. And we need to make sure that the 2,000 acres that the county government gave over to DNR are going to be utilized into a brand new state park so that we can encourage South County to become a part of Corridor H." He went on to say that DNR doesn't have a good track record of park planning to make the best use of funding. He sighted Saint John's Rock as an example where $1.7 million was spent on an ORV (off-road vehicle) trail where they see 1.5 users per day on that investment, according to Dreisbach. Additionally, Dreisbach would like to see, as part of Garrett Trails, the 150-mile hiking, biking, and paddling trail that would complete the Eastern Continental Divide Loop that connects Meyersdale and Confluence. "I think it's time for the state to look at how we can do a bond bill to built it." He also addressed other trails leading to Meadow Mountain, Deep Creek Lake, and the need for a river crossing in Friendsville. He also requested a bond bill to build out high-speed internet in the county. "If we don't get high-speed internet, we're going to lose all the opportunities that Amazon just brought to Northern Virginia," Dreisbach said the county has a great off-sight business in GC Technologies and we should have more of those types of businesses. "We need for someone to raise their hand and say it's time for Garrett County to have a high-speed internet bill." Edwards sits on the Rural Broadband Task Force which is finishing up a report with recommendations for the Governor. He said they're currently debating a funding request that will meet the needs of the county.
Braitman used his father who worked for the electric company as an example for building out the broadband in the county. Just as electricity became a commonplace utility, the same should be true for broadband, according to Braitman.
Edwards said that some existing infrastructure can be used to avoid certain expenses to make it happen. Beitzel backed up Edwards statement by saying there is conduit in places that make connections easier. "There's really a lot going on," he added regarding broadband expansion.
Braitman said he has connectivity, however, it's not high-speed as a point of reference. Some areas have access to internet but at speeds far lower than standard consumer or business demands.
Ann Bristow addressed tourism development and agreed that the monies spent on the ATV trails at Saint John's Rock could have been better spent if used for Garrett Trails. "Kudos to the Garrett County Chamber for what they've been doing with tourism and I think our trails are a real opportunity to increase that," she said.
Bristow also requested an update on legislation from the last session that was addressing expunging records of marijuana minor offenses. Beitzel said the bill was looking to qualify the offense as just a misdemeanor.
He mentioned another bill that he opposed which prevents colleges from asking students applying to attend if they have a criminal record. Beitzel's reason for opposing the bill was to protect innocent students from being exposed to convicted criminals without administrators being aware. The bill passed which also prevents employers from asking invasive questions about someone's past records.
Beitzel also anticipates a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the next session. This would follow suit with other states who have already done so.
Edwards said the regulations about hiring correctional officers has dramatically changed. Applicants were once asked if they every used marijuana and now it's if they've used it in the last three months. He said they are having a hard time finding people who qualify since marijuana is so prevalent. "It's a safety issue," said Edwards. "If you work for corrections, their asking a lot of these people to work two shifts, one right after the other, and you're in there with some of the worst of the worst." He added that their trying to come up with criteria that will allow more people to apply while retaining a high standard.
Edwards pointed out that to try to help with the rate of incarceration, Governor Hogan has put up $50 million to counter the opioid crisis.
"The shoreline erosion has been a pet-peeve of mine for many, many years," a long-time real estate agent, Dale Carpenter said. He recalled a story of his family purchasing a little motel on Deep Creek Lake. "I can remember going down to that shoreline and my parents and my sister and I worked, and worked, and worked to stack stone on top of stone...to build a shoreline wall," Carpenter said the wall stood for over 30 years. "Today, I don't think they would permit that stone wall to be built because it would have to be done by licensed contractors." Beitzel responded by saying if you have a structure in place, you are permitted to make repairs, however, a new structure would require filing for a permit with a plan of what the structure would be. For each homeowner who invests in a shoreline wall, "We're improving state property," said Carpenter. "At my cost!" Carpenter also disagreed with having an application fee since homeowners are making a private investment in state-owned property. A second issue Carpenter raised was County recreation and he launched criticism of Saint John's Rock. He is an ATV rider and referred to the trail as a "joke." The trail as he described it follows an old logging trail so riders will travel 10 miles out, turn around, and follow the same trail back, rather than following a more traditional looping trail that provides continuous new surroundings. He attributed the limited trails to endangered species that prohibit disruption of the habitats. When the topic of an ATV park arose, he had heard objections that a questionable element could be invited. According to Carpenter, the people who seek out trails have discretionary dollars to spend on expensive equipment so they will also be dining locally and finding accommodations in the County. He said other areas have already enjoyed revenue from ATV parks that exceeded expectations. "I don't know what their plans are for Wolf Den but we could have Allegany County and Garrett County come together and have hundreds of miles of trails and it would bring in quite a bit of income and revenue."
Mark Stutzman is President of Engage Mountain Maryland. He brought up potential business opportunities due to the new Amazon headquarters that will be located in Northern Virginia. He anticipates a huge increase in the housing and commercial real estate prices that may make it unaffordable for some to live and work in the area. The average salary for future Amazon employees is estimated to be $150,000 annually, according to Stutzman. "If we're looking at those kinds of businesses looking to get out of a congested market, live in a place that's more affordable and desirable, Garrett County is a great place to live," Stutzman said. Through an economic initiative called Adventure Capital, Stutzman said they've identified three key components that are problematic for Garrett County's economic success. "We have a stagnant population and an aging population, we're losing our young talent to places like D.C. and other more metropolitan areas, and we're losing our kids in school which means we don't have young families," Stutzman explained. "All of these things are people so what Garrett County needs desperately and quickly are people." The only way to do that quickly and efficiently, according to Stutzman is to get businesses and people to relocate to Garrett County. He added that the County can't naturally repopulate with the limitations of having just 30,000 people. Stutzman then asked the Delegation to seek opportunities and incentives such as finishing broadband connections in the county and to put out the "calling card" for businesses as they circulate the state. As the eastern part of Maryland becomes more and more concentrated with people, Stutzman said this could be the right time to tap into displeasure with urban living. A final request was to get Maryland television for Garrett County. Stutzman pointed out that the recent election was an example of how isolated the County is from the rest of Maryland. Stutzman noted that this has been a long-time issue but with changes in how people access information, broadcast providers may be more flexible about the areas they serve. Edwards responded by pointing out the television service is a federal issue through the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). "We are an orphaned county and this was set up way back in the 1930s by the FCC," Edwards explained. "We were put in the Pittsburgh area because of where people wanted to shop. It's different now because of transportation." The Delegation has tried in the past to change cable service and Edwards said it's "probably as easy as pushing a button" with modern technology as it is. He said he's heard about it for years, particularly in election years where the local market is only seeing information and ads for Pennsylvania elections that are irrelevant. The recommendation from Edwards was to write Garrett County's federal officials that would including newly-elected Congressman David Trone who represents the 6th District, and Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen. Telling them it's time to change the law may be enough for it to finally happen, as Edwards sees it. "To me, it would be fairly simple. Most people don't go to Pittsburgh to shop. You might go to Morgantown, Altoona or Hagerstown or even further east from there." Mark Widmyer, who had remained quiet through most of the meeting chimed in on this issue using his past experience in television. "Broadcasters use a term called ADI (Areas of Dominant Influence) and that area can circle out 150 miles so that's how they lay out the territory that they're going to cover," He explained. As an example, Widmyer noted that Frostburg gets channels from the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area because they fall within that radius. The formula for calculating the regions, according to Widmyer, is influenced by advertisers. "All they [cable provider] would have to do is put up another satellite, another microwave, and they could kick it up here with no problem out of Cumberland but it's that ADI thing that rules the world."