The Worcester County Commissioners approved the next fiscal year’s budget in a 5-2 vote Tuesday with proponents not swayed by the harsh criticism and public displays of frustration by the county’s teachers and sympathetic residents over the last two weeks.
In fact, the robust and heated opposition may have led to some commissioners digging their heels in further and being stubborn over the entire thing. That’s the only reasonable conclusion when for $800,000 in the next budget all county employees could have as of Jan. 1 received a step increase that would have resulted in minimal tax consequences for the county populace.
We say minimal because it would come half way through the fiscal year and be a small positive when compared to the major tax increases featured in the budget — a 6.5-cent property tax jump and a 40-percent hike to the income tax.
There is no doubt government employees were hurt terribly by the Worcester County budget. We feel for the household headed by two county employees because they have been impacted tremendously. County employees’ take-home pay was essentially decreased when the tax increases are considered as well as health insurance. The county could have eased the burden a little by striking the compromise that was at one point included in the budget. It was something Commissioners Bud Church and Joe Mitrecic supported.
“The teachers deserve a raise. They sign a contract when they are hired. It lays it out that they are supposed to progress at a certain level. If we had done that half step Jan. 1, it would have helped offset the tax increases. It was in the budget — about $800,000 for all county employees — and it would have taken place six months into the fiscal year. They wouldn’t have been completely happy, but it certainly would have caused a lot less anxiety,” Mitrecic said.
A majority of the commissioners would not go for it, however. Instead, there is an alienated workforce in the county that is bitter and upset with some personnel mulling job changes.
The Worcester County Board of Education fueled that fire when Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson said in a statement, “We were hoping that Commissioners would fund a pay increase to all county employees, but they have not. As a result, we are forced to decide if giving our employees a pay increase warrants internal reductions. Because we believe our employees have earned a pay increase, we will be seriously considering the options. For us, our people come first; they are worth it.”
It’s that last line that surely infuriated commissioners and further divides the two bodies.
Mitrecic believes the school board will come back with a proposal “to cut a bunch of programs” and “make us the bad guys. They are going to say, ‘we have to cut this and that.”
It’s clear the school board is reluctant to make those “internal reductions” because it feels the budget it proposed, of which the county sliced more than $3 million from, was essential. Every single dollar was accounted for and reviewed and deemed important in the eyes of school system officials. The county says it increased the school budget by $1.2 million over last year and the school board can through reorganization of administration and other positions adjust its spending to concentrate more dollars on the classroom.
The County Commissioners and the Board of Education must improve their relationship. This adversarial way dates back years and is not healthy or productive. It’s an “us vs. them” mentality and in the middle are the teachers and their aides and assistants. This is not to mention the students.
These professionals need to rise up and hold early budget meetings next year to avoid the current animosity that exists between the staff and county decision makers. The answer is improved communication. It doesn’t have to always be pleasant but meetings must be held while the school board is crafting its budget and meeting with teacher representatives to avoid future unpleasantness. The commissioners need to have a greater role in those early deliberations so there are no surprises late in the process like there was this year.