SALISBURY — Faced with declining revenues and a growing list of budget obligations, Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt this week painfully called for a five-cent increase on the property tax rate to help balance his proposed $111.4 million fiscal year 2012 budget.
Pollitt pitched the proposed property tax hike to the County Council during his budget presentation on Tuesday. He acknowledged the tax increase would be tough sell to the property owners in Wicomico, but asked for the citizens to make the sacrifice for the greater good of the community.
“We have all the things we want, but we have to find a way to pay for them,” he said. “We’re looking to increase the taxes paid by our citizens and that’s where it gets dicey. For the third year in a row, we’re facing serious budget challenges with declining revenues. Property values have been going down and the taxes we pay on our income is going down.”
Pollitt explained the citizens of Wicomico a few years back approved through a referendum process a cap on what they would pay in property taxes. Through the same referendum, they also approved a county executive form of government. As a result, the revenue derived from property taxes has steadily declined, necessitating the proposed increase this year.
“This year, the property tax rate has declined to the point it was in 1989,” he said. “We have the flexibility to raise the property tax rate by five cents this year. Our budget is balanced with the five-cent increase. We need to have a steady source of income to pay for the things that we have.”
Pollitt said declining revenues coupled with deteriorating public facilities and other demands on the budget made the property tax hike a necessity. He told the council the increase would met with a lot of resistance, but urged the citizens of Wicomico to share in the expense.
“We know this is going to be tough, but if I don’t put this on the table, there is no debate,” he said. “We need to hear from our community to see if they are willing to make the sacrifice to help pay for the things they want from their government.”
Those things include a safe community, a quality public education system, quality parks and a strong public library system. They also include a rehabilitated road system, which has fallen into disrepair in some cases to the point the streets are hardly passable.
“We want all the things that make our community whole,” he said. “We realize there is a cost to doing that and we are hoping our citizens are willing to help pay for them.”
Pollitt pointed out the county budget had been cut the point a property tax hike is a measure of last resort. For example, $12 million has been cut from the public education system the last two years and the county sheriff’s department budget was cut in half last year. Wicomico County’s budget has been steadily reduced from a high of $129.5 million in 2009 to $111.4 million proposed this year.
“These cuts have come with a price and almost no department has been held harmless,” he said.
Pollitt did point out the proposed budget with the five-cent property tax increase protects what the community wants most from its government.
“This keeps the parks open, fully funds Wor-Wic Community College, includes $12,000 for the Meals on Wheels program, keeps public safety personnel at current levels, repairs Beaglin Park Drive and limits cut to education to just $5 million,” he said.
Pollitt said the proposed budget doesn’t address much needed funding for the county’s “stuff,” including public parks, government buildings and a growing list of obligations. For example, $12 million is needed in road repairs, millions more are needed to upgrade the aging government office building and more than $1 million is needed for public parks.
“None of this addresses that,” he said. “We just haven’t had a good track record of taking care of our stuff. Our stuff is deteriorating. The day will come when our stuff will fall down and our roads will become impassable.”
Pollitt said the property tax increase will be a tough sell, but asked the citizens to make a sacrifice to do their share.
“We did some research on this and learned the increase will cost the average property owner about $75,” he said. “That’s the price of a nice dinner for four, or nowadays, a tank of gas.”
Councilman Joe Holloway pointed out the proposed property tax increase could have a greater impact on the business community and warned of a possible exodus from Wicomico if it’s passed.
“This is not just an increase in the property tax, this is an increase in the personal property tax and inventory tax that could be detrimental to businesses,” she said. “Businesses have tough choices to make when their taxes go up. They can raise their prices, lay people off or move out of Wicomico.”
However, Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes said the overall vibe in the community is that the citizens were generally prepared to do their part. The county’s elected officials will likely find out during a public hearing on the budget on May 5.
“I attended the public hearing and I think a majority of our citizens are willing to pay more to improve the quality of life in Wicomico County,” she said.