SNOW HILL -- If Stephen R. Mathews has learned one thing in his stint as mayor of the Worcester County seat, it's that change does not occur quickly in a town that brags about its 315-year history beside the languid waters of the Pocomoke River.
Take taxes. It's been 15 years since the last increase, and despite recent budget woes that have left Snow Hill teetering near insolvency, some residents figure Town Hall ought to keep going as it always has.
Angry at a 19 percent property tax increase approved by the Town Council on Tuesday night, a few have suggested that Snow Hill scrap its charter (which dates to 1686) and turn things over to county government. After all, like residents of most municipalities, they pay county taxes along with the town levy.
That's when Mathews, a former Army Green Beret and 23-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., police department, says what he's been saying since he took office in 1998: Without an infusion of cash and new ways of doing things, Snow Hill will end up broke.
"When I first came into office, I found that previous councils and mayors had been dipping into the water and sewer fund -- which is supposed to be totally separate -- just to balance the operating budget," said Mathews, a child abuse investigator in nearby Wicomico County. "When we put that money back where it belonged, we were in a $13,000 hole."
In 1999, an aggressive effort to collect back taxes netted the town a surplus of $109,000. But the realities of government on a shoestring soon became apparent.
Last year, the town's garbage truck broke down. So did a public works department pickup. Both had to be replaced. Add a $25,000 fine from the Maryland Department of the Environment for a sewer plant violation. End of surplus.
The real estate tax rate, increased 14 cents to 86 cents per $100 of assessed value, will produce a $42,000 reserve -- precariously short, Mathews says, of the $300,000 reserve that accountants have recommended Snow Hill have on hand.
Opponents insist that taxes are already too high and question whether it makes sense for Snow Hill to maintain its 26-employee staff, including an eight-member police force, in the face of rising costs and little growth.
"This was presented as if there were no option," said Kathy Geiger, an Iowa native who settled in Snow Hill nine years ago. "This is too drastic an increase, and I think that [dissolving the charter] should have been on the table. It is a plausible idea that should have been considered."
Comparatively higher rate
Snow Hill's new tax rate is higher than those of neighboring towns in the county. In Pocomoke City, the rate is 76 cents per $100 of assessed value, and 68 cents in Berlin.
The owner of a $100,000 home in Snow Hill will pay $860 in taxes.
Some residents, like retired cook Margaret Merritt, say it's not just an increase in town taxes but the cumulative effect of increased costs for just about everything that has them worried.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think [city officials] have much choice," said Merritt, who has lived here for 40 years. "I'm concerned about our fees for water and sewer going up, and I hate to see the tax rate go up. But if we don't, then the town will go under."
In the downtown business district, which has seen new interest in its turn-of-the-century brick buildings, shopkeepers and other business owners are optimistic.
Michael Semsker, a Rockville native who with his wife Robin bought a downtown restaurant about three years ago, says the tax burden seems reasonable for the service that residents receive.
"Of course, we're coming from a different area with a different perspective," Semsker says. "We came here and fell in love with the town. Sometimes, the hardest thing is getting people to realize that things have to change if the town is going to survive."
Many are impressed by Mathews' effort, particularly the computer-assisted budget presentation he made before about 75 town residents at a hearing on the town's $1.2 million spending plan.
Mandy Johnson, 26, who opened a downtown florist shop in January, plans to expand the business by converting the second floor of her rented store into a Christmas shop. She's interested in buying the building, but she's waiting to see if downtown continues to improve. "If the mayor says this is what's best for the town, I'm willing to go along with him," Johnson said. "We're a young family with a house and a new business here. I want to see the town grow to the point where [town government] can handle whatever needs to be done."
With budget problems at least temporarily in check, Mathews says, Snow Hill must begin looking to "aggressive annexation" to provide land for residential and commercial development that will expand its tax base. Like many others on the Lower Eastern Shore, he believes that increased tourism and growing numbers of retirees will be the economic cornerstones for the future.
The state's Smart Growth initiative, which encourages development around towns with existing water and sewer, could also be an impetus, Mathews says, but only if Snow Hill is able to upgrade its out-of-date sewage plant.
"The answer won't come until three, five years down the road," Mathews said. "But I think we're on our way. We've made some steps in the right direction."