Perryville and Cecil County made progress toward an agreement for Hollywood Casino's local impact funds, but not without some heated words from the town commissioners and local residents.
While there wasn't a vote on the agreement, which would dictate how long Perryville would receive 35 percent of the funds, the two sides answered, or at least clarified, burning questions and moved toward a vote that could come as soon as the county's work session Tuesday.
Town and county commissioners sat on opposites sides of a table in front of about 25 residents and business owners at Perryville's town hall Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting was not to vote or make a decision on the agreement, but to answer questions the county had for the town about a previous draft of the agreement.
Before the commissioners discussed the six-page draft, Town Commissioner Michael Dawson thanked the people for coming out, even though he had wanted to give the town 30 days notice instead of the seven days that were given. Dawson said he had sent an e-mail to the other commissioners asking for the meeting to be postponed and was mostly "ignored," save for three.
"Ignoring me is ignoring the people of Perryville," Dawson said, inciting applause from the audience.
Mayor Jim Eberhardt said that postponing Tuesday's meeting had been discussed and the commissioners agreed to continue with the scheduled night. Eberhardt also reiterated that no decision was going to be made that night. County Commissioner Robert Hodge agreed with Eberhardt, saying the point of the meeting was "just to have an open dialogue."
Dawson also brought up a meeting between Eberhardt and County Administrator Al Wein in August when a 15-year agreement, rather than one for three years, was discussed.
"You got the mayor to go to 15 years. That's ridiculous," Dawson said, referring to Eberhardt bringing the idea of a 15-year agreement to the town board. He added that 15 years was originally the fewest years the town was seeking. Dawson said he wanted to know what was discussed at the meeting between the mayor and Wein that made Eberhardt change his mind about the number of years in the agreement.
Eberhardt, who explained at previous town meetings the nature of the discussion, said Wein told him the majority of county commissioners would go for 15 years and asked what Perryville's board would say to that. He went on to say the board, a few days after the initial meeting, gave the OK to negotiate for a 15-year agreement.
Dawson also said Cecil County is "blackmailing the town" by holding onto the impact funds until an agreement is reached and signed. He added that everything from the fire company to water and sewer for the casino is run through Perryville and, therefore, is the town's money.
Town Commissioner Michelle Linkey said there's no dispute over the 65 percent, 35 percent split between Perryville and Cecil County and the two sides can discuss the split again when the agreement nears an end, most likely in 15 years.
"It's been almost a year since the casino opened and we haven't seen one cent," Linkey said. She added that many citizens have expressed their desire to have an agreement so the town can begin getting the money from the casino.
Hodge, the county commissioner, stressed they were "not here to try to take away from Perryville and we're not here to negotiate percentages," but the board was there to move the process forward.
Town Commissioner Alan Fox cited a passage in the draft agreement, saying if the agreement still stands in 15 years, there's a chance the town "will be back where we are right now." Hodge replied that only modifications to the agreement would need to be made if/when it is re-negotiated and would be done after an independent analysis on the casino's impact on the town and county after that amount of time. To give ample time to reach negotiations, County Board of Commissioners President James Mullin explained, discussion will begin the 13th year of the agreement rather than shortly before it expires.
Eberhardt said he wants to have a process for negotiations in place because coming to an agreement has been so difficult for the town and county. In the agreement, it will state that if the town and county still can't come to agreement when the 15 years come to a close, the two will seek arbitration. If an agreement still can't be reached, all money from the impact funds will be put into an escrow account and neither side will receive money until there is an agreement.
County Commissioner Michael Dunn expressed concerns about whether the town had a contingency plan to pay for projects or other town-funded entities, if money from the casino "dries up." Eberhardt said they would come up with a financing plan so there would be money available for any given project. A few projects the town hopes to use the local impact funds toward are a new town hall and police station.
Eberhardt then gave the floor to the public. While the crowd was quiet at first, Suzy Lewis-Conklin, of Bay Circle Drive, broke the silence and said she would go first.
After taking the podium, Lewis-Conklin said she didn't understand why the commissioners gathered that night and said they wanted questions answered, but it sounded like no questions had been asked.
Mullin said the majority of questions were answered during a meeting in June and it "just helps to sit and talk with these folks face to face" to get a chance to voice any concerns. He added that he feels more comfortable about the direction the agreement is heading in after they've hashed things out.
Lewis-Conklin commented that she thinks the town does a wonderful job and "doesn't spend money willy-nilly" and wanted to support them.
Susan Burkins, who owns a strip of businesses on Route 40 in town along with her husband, Rex, asked if anyone had thought of asking a lawyer for any of the other casinos nearby what their process was for local impact funds. Town Commissioner Barbara Brown responded that the state wrote the legislation and they weren't able to anticipate what would be included in it until it was complete.
Stanley Campbell, of the 300 block of Beacon Point Drive, asked if there would be any "safety nets in place" in case the town's share of 35 percent decreases when re-negotiation comes up. Eberhardt agreed that there should be something, possibly in the agreement, that would help prevent that from happening, but the silver lining was in 15 years there will be more data on the town's impact from the casino and it can then be better judged if the 35 percent is fair.
Rex Burkins also spoke up, asking why it has taken so long for Perryville to receive its share and how the county has been getting money from the local impact funds. Several commissioners responded that it was because no agreement had been reached yet between the city and county.
"I can't believe it's taken a year to get a small town's portion," Burkins said. Commissioner Moore said the state sent the money to the county. County Commissioner Diana Broomell added that's how the legislation was written.
Michael Glen Jasper Jr., of the 100 block of John Street, stood up from his seat in frustration and said that the two sides going back and forth for so long was "a prime example of what is wrong" with government. After calling the situation "ridiculous," Jasper left.
Matt Roath, of the 400 block of Sumpter Drive, said the people's frustration comes from how the county has treated the town throughout the process.
Dawson, the town commissioner, wasn't shy either about expressing his frustration. He asked the county commissioners if other towns have gotten money from their share of the funds and a couple people said yes, naming a few county entities, such as the Haven House in Elkton and Christmas in April, both non-profits.
"It's like you punched us right in the face," Dawson said, when the town's people see and hear other places receiving money but Perryville still hasn't gotten any. He added that all of the other towns should wait to receive money until Perryville gets its share.
"I believe all the money belongs to the town," Dawson said, adding the town should sue the county over the funds. Moore responded to Dawson, saying it's the state that should be sued, not the county, since the state wrote the legislation.
Mullin said the agreement would be put on the county's Oct. 4 work session agenda for further discussion and to plan a possible vote; the county commissioners are not allowed to vote on contracts during a work session.