Worcester Looking To Address $7.3M Budget Gap

SNOW HILL — A first look at Worcester County’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 Operating Budget shows an increase of over $800,000 in estimated revenue but an anticipated budget shortfall of $7,374,149.

“Based on current tax rates, revenues are estimated to be $166.7 million,” Chief Administrative Officer Gerald Mason explained to the County Commission Tuesday. “Requested operating expenses are $174.1 million which leaves a shortfall of $7.4 million which must be reconciled through reductions in expenditure or additional revenue.”

Though revenues are up, expenses have also increased across several departments, most notably the Sheriff’s Office, up $2,224,744; grants to towns, up $2,261,882; and the Board of Education, up $2,289,949 from the current year. A portion of those costs for both the school system and especially the Sheriff’s Office are related to an increased demand for school safety. Factored into the Sheriff’s budget is roughly $1.7 million for the training and hiring of School Resource Officers (SROs).

However, those costs could come down dramatically if the commission decides not to employ full-time SROs with county vehicles. Without vehicles and only working during the school year, SROs could be placed in every public school facility in Worcester for under $600,000, according to Sheriff Reggie Mason.

On the Board of Education’s side, school security costs were much lower and concentrated mainly on improvements to buildings such as additional surveillance and entry systems. The majority of the increases for the board come from a requested $1,506,896 salary package with a payroll increase of 2.5 percent and a 1-percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). After adjusting for new hires and retirements, the salary increase would cost a net $897,302.

Also included in the Board of Education budget is a $120,000 increase to bus contractors, a starting teacher pay rate increase from $42,222 to $42,644, and $400,000 in one-time non-recurring costs mainly related to technology. The total board requested budget is $76,397,987, an increase of about $2.3 million from the current year.

Because teachers and faculty technically work for the county, a similar 2.5 percent raise and benefits increase has been factored in for all county employees at an estimated net cost of $382,607.

Requests from county municipalities have increased by $2,261,882 this year as well with most applications listing infrastructure improvements and boosting tourism as major goals.

Though total revenue is up for FY2014, property tax revenue will decrease by $3,640,299 due to falling property assessments. Income tax revenue is up by $1,000,000, however, and state grants have increased by about $1.1 million. Federal grants are expected to drop by about $35,000, due to a reduction in the Homeland Security and Crime Analyst grant funds.

Transfers have increased by $2 million from use of revenues from Casino-Local Impact Grant Funds which goes toward the debt service for Worcester Technical High School.

After reviewing this budget, Gerald Mason reminded the commissioners that this is only the earliest look at the county operating budget and it will change before finally being adopted this summer.

There are two budget work sessions scheduled for March 26 and April 9. There will be a public hearing on the operating budget on May 7. If needed, additional budget work sessions will be on May 14, May 22 and May 28. A final budget will be adopted on June 4.

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