Commissioners Not Expecting Tax Increase In 2014

SNOW HILL — Members of the County Commission tagged balancing the budget without a tax hike, encouraging major development along Route 50 and addressing deteriorating county roads as some of their major goals for 2014. The commissioners also discussed public involvement in the upcoming election year and how Worcester’s Department of Liquor Control (DLC) will adapt to fulfilling its “Sunset Provision” in 2014.
A property tax increase is something that commissioners don’t want, and don’t expect, to see in 2014, according to Commission President Bud Church. Though the budget process will take place later this spring, Church is confident that any sort of tax hike will not be on the table.
“I can tell you there’s not going to be a tax increase this year, thank goodness,” he said.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw is also optimistic about balancing the budget this year without needing more tax dollars in the county coffers.
“As far as the budget this year, certainly we’re not planning on any tax increase and it’s going to be January before we’re going to know what our revenues are going to be, so that’s a little bit premature right now to say too much on that other than that our plan is to not increase taxes,” Lockfaw said.
Lockfaw sees “some light at the end of the tunnel” in terms of economic recovery for Worcester. The county has been limping a bit since the national recession began in 2008, but Lockfaw has noticed some positive trends with real estate and hopes those will continue in 2014.
Sharing Church’s and Lockfaw’s commitment not to increase property taxes, Commissioner Jim Bunting was more pessimistic about an economic recovery any time soon.
“I’m not seeing the economy myself, getting any better … The county’s net worth has gone down the last seven or eight years quite a bit, and it went down again this year with the assessment of the west part of the county so we’re going to have to do more with less again this year. That’s probably the biggest challenge that we will have,” Bunting said.
Bunting’s pet peeve is the possible reliance on budget stabilization funds again this year to balance the budget. It’s an unsustainable practice, he argued.
“By 2017, we will burn through the budget stabilization totally. It will be gone and robbing that fund to balance your budget as we did last year, and as they proposed last year until 2017 is not balancing your budget,” Bunting said. “So I’m hoping that we will focus more on trying to increase revenues the proper way by promoting business in the county.”
What Bunting would like to see is enough of a revenue increase into Worcester to protect the budget without the need for a tax bump or use of stabilization funds. While he has not noticed an economic recovery yet, the commission’s decision to extend sewer services around the Riddle Farms service area near Route 50 in West Ocean City could lure in major development.
“We’ve got sewer available. Now those big stores can come here and know they’ve got sewer,” he said. “I’m hoping to see a big, big increase as far as revenues with property taxes on those properties.”
Church was also glad to see county sewer enhanced around Mystic Harbor in West Ocean City. The county is entering the final stages of a new treatment plant that Church believes will do its part in attracting new business.
“That’s something that has been on the drawing board a long, long time and that’s getting ready to come online,” he said. “That old plant was held together, I’ve said this many times, with duct tape and bubble gum. And that’s going to allow for some expansion for areas that are on septic and that’s going to be a good thing in the future.”
Another big issue outside of the budget that the commissioners have under a magnifying glass is the Sunset Provision, which will allow county alcoholic beverage licensees to seek out their own wholesale providers. Currently, all licensees must buy wholesale through the county government’s DLC. The commission is operating in anticipation of some licensees leaving to handle their own wholesale in July and has put a growing emphasis on retail operations over the past several months.
“We’ve got to look at the buyouts where 2014 is when the licenses will be able to discontinue purchasing from the county if they want to do so,” Lockfaw said. “And so we’re looking at that. We’ve opened up a new store, and we’re doing some things to maintain our retail operations, and I think we have done a great job with the licensees.”
An unrelated but important issue for Lockfaw is the state of roads in Worcester. He pointed out that the county’s share of highway user funds has dropped from about $5 million to roughly $96,000 in recent years.
“Like all of the other counties, it’s starting to show severe wear and tear. The roads are starting to break up and all,” said Lockfaw. “We’ve got to look at putting in a couple million a year to even put a halt to the deterioration of our roads.”
All of the commissioners spoke proudly of the decision to move ahead with renovation of Snow Hill High School in 2014. Church added that he is also proud to see so many county residents preparing to take part in next year’s commission election. Already four non-incumbent commissioners have filed to run, three of them for the open Ocean Pines seat currently held by retiring Commissioner Judy Boggs.

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