SALISBURY — The property tax rate will increase in Wicomico County, though only by a fifth of what one proposal suggested.
The Wicomico County Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to raise the property tax rate by a penny, amending the current tax rate from 75.9 cents to 76.9 cents per $100 of assessment property value. The decision to raise taxes was a controversial one, as the council had a budget without any tax increases ready as late as Monday. However, the council learned Tuesday morning that cuts they had made to the State’s Attorney Office, equaling about $105,000, would severely hamper the office’s ability to operate and would create staffing issues, according to State’s Attorney Matthew Maciarello.
Councilman Bob Culver suggested meeting Maciarello in the middle and return $50,000, which he asserted could be taken from the county contingency fund.
“It’s going to be a tight year,” said Culver. “I’m trying to meet him halfway … We’ve cut every other department in this county.”
Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman had reservations about tapping into the county’s reserve fund.
“I’d be concerned about taking from the contingency,” said Prettyman.
Prettyman noted that the fund only held about $570,000 at the moment and needed to last the council all year.
Councilman Joe Holloway, however, agreed with Culver that the contingency fund could handle the hit. He was even willing to go a step further. Holloway suggested returning the full $105,000 cut from Maciarello budget, using $50,000 from the contingency fund while the remainder could be generated by eliminating the position of public information officer.
“A public information officer is something not needed,” he said, asserting that most dounty departments do an adequate job of self-promotion and information disclosure.
However, the rest of the council was hesitant to start dipping into the contingency fund. In fact, several stated that they would like to have more money in the contingency to allow for security and flexibility. The idea of raising property tax rates by one cent, though it had been shot down in the past.
Besides returning the cuts made to the State’s Attorney’s Office, there would be enough capital generated by the increase to dramatically affect this year’s budget, since raising rates by one penny amounts to about $787,000.
“You may want to make restorations,” said Council Administrator Matthew Creamer.
Creamer also advised using some of the revenue to bolster the contingency fund. The council did just that, while the exact amount generated by the increase was debated, all agreed that it would be well over $700,000.
The majority of that was earmarked toward softening or cancelling cuts made during the budget process, with the remainder to be added to the contingency fund. Prettyman requested roughly $95,000 be earmarked toward returning a county employee furlough day. She also wanted to see approximately $327,000 go back toward general employee retirement, $10,000 go to the civic center, and $2,000 to roads department retirement.
Councilwoman Sheree Sample-Hughes petitioned for $25,000 to be given back to county libraries.
Culver, though, still disapproved of the tax hike, saying that the county should use its “new found wealth” to help projects like Meals on Wheels. He suggested $12,000 be allocated for that service.
After everything was calculated, the council expected about $187,000 to be left over after the budget cuts were padded.
Councilman Matt Holloway suggested that this be put into the county contingency fund, a move Council President Gail Bartkovich supported.
“We need to be very cautious,” she said.
With the remainder from the tax increase, the council estimated that the new contingency would be in the $750,000 range.
Bartkovich seemed satisfied and pointed out that the fund would help offset any future burdens imposed by the state.
“I feel like, down the road, the state is going to be putting more mandates on us,” she said, highlighting the shift in responsibility for assessments from the state to the county level as well as the loss of highway user funds.
After the discussion, Culver and Joe Holloway still remained against the one-cent tax increase, despite the fact that County Executive Rick Pollitt’s budget had called for an approximately five-cent raise last month, according to the council.
“A tax increase takes money out of people’s pockets in Wicomico County,” maintained Joe Holloway.
He explained that he was against any raising of rates, whether it be by a nickel or a penny. He again brought up his discontent with the idea of a public information officer.
“We’re basically saying that it’s okay to expand the county executive’s office,” he told the rest of the council.
The council majority outvoted Culver and Joe Holloway and agreed to the tax raise, as well as to the programs the excess revenue generated would be earmarked for.
However, once it came time to pass the actual FY2012 budget, Culver voted with the majority, while Sample-Hughes switched to a no vote, the only opposition to the motion besides Joe Holloway.
Sample-Hughes explained that she had no problem with slightly raising property taxes; the sticking point for her in the current budget is a perceived inattention to education.
“We are compromising public education … it’s being compromised on a daily basis,” said Sample-Hughes.
She added that many citizens were telling the council to “tighten their belts,” but that only so much could be cut.
“At this point, I think we may be on the last loop,” she said.
The current budget calls for a $7 million cut to the county’s Board of Education proposed budget.
Even with Sample-Hughes and Joe Holloway against it, the council budget breezed by with a 5-2 majority.
“We must strive to refocus, reconstruct, and normalize our efforts,” said Prettyman of the year to come.
After passing the budget, the council asked for public comments. While feedback was minimal, it was entirely positive.
“I think this [budget] sets us up for better government in the future,” said resident Kay Gibson.
Gibson admitted that she didn’t like the one-cent tax increase, but was a lot more comfortable with it than a five-cent increase.
Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton praised the council for its decision to return the $105,000 they had previously cut from the State’s Attorney’s Office. Ireton shared the belief that cuts to the State’s Attorney could easily lead to rising crime rates, since the office would be forced to plea bargain more due to lack of time and personnel.
Tom Hehman, the retiring director of both the Wicomico County Commission on Aging and the County Library, thanked the council for supporting both Meals on Wheels and the library system.
Finally, Maciarello spoke on getting back the $105,000 he had thought would be cut from his budget.
“We promise to be good partners with the county,” he told the council.