SALISBURY- Stabilized, but not fully recovered is how Wicomico County Executive Richard Pollitt described the county’s proposed fiscal year 2014, which he informally presented to the County Council this week.
On Tuesday, Pollitt provided an informal presentation of his proposed fiscal year 2014 budget to the County Council and described the current economic climate in Wicomico as having turned a corner from the recent dark days of the recession, but stopped short of celebrating its demise.
“We continue to look forward to recovering from the great recession and there are signs that the worst is behind us,” he said. “Wicomico continues to lag behind, even among counties on the Lower Shore and we’re getting mixed signals about recovery.”
Pollitt’s proposed budget reflects an estimated $126 million in revenue balanced against $126 million in spending. If approved as proposed, the county’s budget represents an increase of around $10 million over fiscal year 2013.
“We want to approach this budget very cautiously and we need to continue to control spending,” he said. “The good news is, our reserve funds are back to where they were prior to the recession and our fiscal house is in order.”
While the county’s fiscal house appears to be in order and the proposed budget represents an increase of around $10 million over the current year, the relatively good news should not be taken as a signal to open the purse strings, according to Pollitt.
“We have to slow the temptation to be more aggressive in spending,” he said. “The temptation will be to increase spending to make up for the sacrifices we’ve made over the last few years, but we have to say ‘not so fast’. There will be pressure to jump into the reserve fund, but recurring expenses will have to be paid for recurring revenue. We cannot put our bond rating at risk.”
Pollitt said Wicomico County is getting some relief from the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) for public education funding mandated by the state. State law requires the counties to spend at least as much in each budget cycle on public education as it did in the prior year, called the MOE, and last year Wicomico faced increased scrutiny for failing to hit the mark.
This year, however, subtle changes have relaxed the MOE mandates and Wicomico will actually have more money to spend on public education in fiscal year 2014, according to Pollitt.
“We were able to put that off and as a consequence, we’re able to avoid a serious dip in spending for education,” he said. “Public safety and public education make up about 80 percent of our budget and when we have to cut, we have nowhere else to go. The Board of Education took the biggest hit, but this proposed budget will provide $1 million over Maintenance of Effort.”
Pollitt said among the increases for the Board of Education in the proposed budget is $2.8 million for a comprehensive security upgrade in each of Wicomico’s public schools. Also included are increases in spending for technology for the schools along with numerous capital projects.
“The most visible and often the most emotional component of our budget remains our commitment to our children’s education,” he said. “Over the past three years, our funding for education has dropped to a level that can only be described as painful. Thankfully, increases in state and federal funding have been able to offset, to a large degree, the cuts the county has been forced to make.”
Another area of increase this year for Wicomico is the level of disparity grants from the state. Pollitt said the disparity grants have been capped in recent years at $2 million, but have been eased up this year because of Wicomico’s effort on the local level to increase its spending. As a result, Wicomico stands to gain about $4.5 million is state disparity grants for the fiscal year 2014 budget.
For example, Wicomico is anticipating $700,000 in state disparity grants for its share of Wor-Wic Community College. Pollitt said the $700,000 represents about $300,000 more than the school was seeking.
“Next to keeping us safe, we have no more important or solemn duty than to educate our children to the fullest extent affordable,” he said. “If our community is to survive, we must create an educated class that can compete with graduates from the around the world for the best jobs and the best opportunities. That is why, at the first sign of a trend toward economic recovery, I am determined to start regaining some of the ground we lost to recent budget cuts.”
Overall, Pollitt said he was pleased with the initial draft of the budget and was ready for the lengthy approval process.
“This budget is balanced and I feel comfortable it is solid,” he said. “I look forward to the upcoming work sessions as we get ready to take the next step.