SNOW HILL — The process had some snags and bumps, but the Worcester County Commissioners managed to unanimously approve a fiscal year 2014 operating budget this week.
The budget includes salary increases for employees without raising taxes or digging out more money than expected from the stabilization fund.
A unanimously passed budget is unusual, at least considering the last few years where there was also some dissent on the commission about the allocation of funds. This year, though, the final budget was accepted without much comment and with no pushback, indicating that the series of compromises made during the development process seemed to satisfy the commission.
“Expenditures and revenues are in balance at a total of $177,981,133 and there are no changes to any county tax rate,” said Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins. “This fiscally conservative budget maintains funding for valuable public services such as safety, education, infrastructure and existing social service programs.”
At the beginning of the process this spring, the county was facing a more than $8 million gap between revenues and expenditures and that was while including a transfer of about $6 million from the stabilization fund into the operating budget. Through a series of workshops and meetings, the commission whittled that first down to a $2.4 million gap and then finally this week’s shortfall of $96,406. The budget is still considered balanced, however, as the county anticipates making up that almost $100,000 over the course of the year as the result of staff vacancies or retirements.
Highlights from the budget include a $2.1 million increase for the Board of Education’s budget, raising it to $77,968,506. All county employees will also be receiving a salary STEP as well as a .5-percent Cost of Living Adjustment and longevity bonuses for those who have exceeded their STEPs.
This will all be done without raising any tax rates. The real property tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of assessed value will continue on into next year which will end up costing the county $466,491 in tax revenue due to declining property values. Revenue from income taxes is expected to jump by $500,000 based on receipts and increased estimates. The income tax rate for the county is 1.25 percent and, like property taxes, will not be changing this year.
“Other Local Taxes, an increase of $1,765,083 primarily due to Ocean City Room Tax, a pass thru to the town,” read a release from the commissioners. “Other category items which include Recordation and Transfer Tax are expected to remain level.”
A notable decrease being made to this year’s expenditures include cutting the Roads Division by $869,868. On the revenue side, money coming from the Department of Liquor Control is expected to dip by $363,371, due to the liquor wholesale market opening in July.
Overall, the $177,981,133 budget represents an increase of $9,337,479 or 5.5-percent more than the FY14 operating budget.
“To summarize the FY14 budget process remains steadfast to the following criteria, no increases in tax rates, maintain the budget stabilization fund as planned, address capital equipment needs and salary issues exasperated by the recession,” Higgins said.
One thing worth noting with the adopted budget is that it does rely on taking $6,393,201 from the county stabilization fund. This was the amount the budget began with months ago and still leaves the stabilization fund in good shape, according to Higgins. However, it is on track to be tapped by FY18 unless property values begin to rise again, which the commission does anticipate.