SALISBURY — This week the room was torn during a public hearing concerning the proposed 5-cent property tax increase in hopes to balance the proposed $111.4 million fiscal year 2012 budget for Wicomico County.
Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt last month announced to the County Council the need for a property tax increase in order to balance declining revenues and budget obligations. At that time, he tried to explain the increase is necessary in order to maintain the level of services provided and expected in the county.
“We have all the things we want, but we have to find a way to pay for them,” Pollitt said while he addressed the council a couple weeks ago. “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 are going down.”
At this week’s hearing on the budget, county residents spoke in favor of and opposed to the 5-cent tax increase. Some understood the increase is meant to offset the declining economy, while others are concerned over what the additional cost will do to those already struggling.
During the public hearing, Administrator Matthew Creamer explained that the tax increase would add about $75 to a homeowner’s expenses whose home is assessed at $150,000.
Wicomico County residents John Holston and Julie Brewington shared with the council their concern over the added property tax increase on top of what citizens are already struggling to pay.
“There are going to be people that have problems making that assessment because they are unemployed,” Holston said.
Brewington referred to gas and food price increases as costs people have already incurred. She said that taxpayers are going to be burdened even more if the council votes to increase property tax.
“Where does it end? How much more do we have to pay?” she asked.
Wor-Wic Community College President Ray Hoy believes that there are changes that need to be made in order for the county to provide the same level of services.
“We need the tax revenue to support the services that this county can provide for us,” he said.
Hoy expects to pay for the services the county provides, such as education and public safety. He added that the people who don’t want to pay additional taxes still expect the level of services and in reality that can’t be done.
“At Wor-Wic, we have learned to do more with less, but now we have entered an era to do less with less and that is very disappointing,” Hoy said.
Former Wicomico County Councilman Bill McCain also spoke in favor of the proposed budget and tax increase. He said that eight out of the last nine years the county has decreased its taxes and now it is time to pay attention to revenue. He added that departments are suffering as a result of the decrease in revenue and the increase in the property tax can help balance those budgets.
“We need to generate more revenue,” McCain said. “A 5-cent increase after a 30-cent decrease over the last several years is a very minimal impact on us citizens, but it does help alleviate some of the pain for our students and our children and those are the people that are the future of our county.”
Some spoke on behalf of the departments that continue to have their budgets decreased and support the property tax increase in order to alleviate those cuts.
Richard Keenan spoke on behalf of the public library. According to Keenan, the library has cut 39 percent since 2009, has closed on Sundays and is now only open two nights a week. In 2009, the library’s budgeted operating expenses were around $1.6 million and by last year it was down to an even $1 million.
“The library is a vital and essential part of having an enlightened and productive citizenship,” he said.
Another department that concern was expressed over having its funding cut is the Board of Education. In 2009, the Board of Education’s budgeted operating expenses was a little over $50 million. Last year that amount had been reduced to around $43 million. This year the department has requested close to $50 million but the proposed budget only allows about $38 million in operating expenses.
Wicomico County Board of Education President Michelle Wright was present to voice her concern.
“We understand the financial crisis our county is in, we understand the pressure you are under to provide all the services that we have become accustomed too,” she said. “Our students, our parents, our business owners, our colleges, and our taxpayers need you to fund education. Our students are our future.”