Thursday, April 19- Commissioners Need To Cut $23M To Balance Budget

SNOW HILL – Worcester County faces one of the largest gaps
between budget requests and anticipated revenue in its history this year.

The total requests, $197.6 million, far exceed the total
projected revenue for fiscal year 2008.

“Estimated revenues, based on the current tax rate, are
$174 million,” said Worcester County Chief Administrator Gerry Mason.

The commissioners will need to cut $23.5 million from the
requested budget presented to them Tuesday to get the fiscal year 2008 budget
to balance

The commissioners have the power to cut or raise the
current property tax rate, 70 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, or keep it
at that level. They will make that decision during the budget process.

Mason emphasized that the budget presented is a summary of
staff requests only.

“It’s not the commissioners’ budget, it’s the requested
budget,” Mason said. “This is a requested budget, so everybody’s asked for
everything.”

Commissioners Judy Boggs and Virgil Shockley joked about
using a chainsaw to bring the budget down to manageable size, as, Shockley
said, former Commissioner Sonny Bloxom often advocated.

“We’ve cut slightly bigger budgets down,” said Mason.

Cutting budget requests appears to be the favored method
of closing the gap rather than raising taxes.

“I’m not going to raise taxes, not going to vote to raise
taxes,” said Commissioner Bob Cowger.

Nearly everything was funded last year, said Boggs, due to
property reassessments in the north end, but not this year. With stable revenue
growth this year, not everything requested will be funded and much of it will
be slashed.

“You have your work cut out for you. You have at least
$23.5 million you either have to cut or find new revenue,” said Mason.

The commissioners have the unenviable task of balancing
the budget while keeping needed programs operating.

“That’s some huge cuts,” Cowger said. He went on to say,
“It makes us look like the bad guys.”

The commissioner said he would like to require departments
to take another look at their budgets and ask them to scale down their
requests. The departments have to take some responsibility, he said.

“I don’t think I’m qualified to micromanage their
budgets,” Cowger said.

However, having the departments rework their budgets at
this stage of the game could jeopardize the narrow time frame for the process.

“If we send it back to everyone, we’re not going to meet
our schedule,” Boggs said.

The commissioners must approve a balanced budget by June
5.

Commission President James Purnell said the individual
departments would have to live with the decisions made by the elected
officials, a situation they have come to expect. In fact, many departments pad
their requests with the understanding some of them will be cut.

“Most of the time when we make our decisions, they accept
that,” he said.

Purnell said it would be a hardship to ask the departments
to redo their requests at this stage of the game.

“I don’t think it’s fair to them,” he said.

Each department has already created a priority list,
except the Board of Education, Mason said.

The Sheriff’s department has said that the new employees
requested are a higher priority than new vehicles, for example.

“We have asked for that priority list from the towns and
also the Board of Education,” Boggs said.

The commissioners will be better able to make decisions on
cuts after the work sessions held with each department, said Shockley, although
he did not rule out Cowger’s suggestion entirely.

The county will see a $14 million increase in revenue in
fiscal year 2008, despite decreases in state and federal grants, interest and
licenses and permits. The decreases are offset by an increase of $20 million in
property tax.

A budget summary released by the county shows that 41
percent of the requested budget would go toward current salaries. Proposed
raises for existing employees would be nearly $6 million. Employee insurance
and benefits are expected to go up 114 percent.

Fifty-five new employees are among the requests, with 32.5
for county departments, and 22.5 for the schools, representing an increase of
$1.4 million in salary costs over last year.

The
county will hold budget work sessions with the departments this month. The
annual public budget hearing will be held May 1 at Snow Hill High School. 

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