County Vows No Tax Rate Hike In Budget

SNOW HILL – It was different year, same story this week as Worcester officials got their first real glimpse at the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, and while the commissioners have to reconcile a difference in revenue and requested expenditures totaling over $14 million, the elected body vowed raising taxes is not an option.

County Administrator Gerald Mason this week laid out the good, bad and ugly in the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget this week, and as anticipated, there appears to be more of the latter than the former. Anticipated general fund revenues are fairly healthy with an increase of over $12 million, or about seven percent, over last year. Unfortunately, a variety of factors have conspired to expand requested expenditures by over $27 million, or about 15 percent.

“That’s the unfortunate long and short of it,” said Mason. “Your work is cut out for you.”

Total anticipated revenues for fiscal year 2009 come in at about $188 million, which is around $16 million more than the current year. However, the total is reduced by nearly $3 million by a change in the county’s Homestead Tax Cap rate last year and other factors, making the real increase in revenues around $12 million.

On the expenditure side, the total requested by all county departments combined comes in at around $202 million. The difference in anticipated revenues and requested expenditures comes to around $14 million, which must be reconciled through an increase in revenues, decreases in requested expenditures or a combination of both. However, the commissioners made it known in no uncertain terms on Tuesday a tax increase is not on the table.

“We’re not raising taxes,” Commission President Virgil Shockley said emphatically over and over on Tuesday. “That is not an option.”

Mason pointed out the 1,000-plus page budget book on the table and a supplementary book of about half the size, adding a moment of levity to what was otherwise a somber budget introduction.

“This is a two-suitcase budget,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “Usually, I carry one suitcase with budget stuff.”

All county departments were instructed, as usual, to attempt to stick close to last year’s requested budgets, particularly in what was known would be a difficult budget year. Of the 33 individual segments of the proposed budget, 23 came in with increases over last year although some are obviously seeking more than others. Just 10 departments came in with requests under what was allocated last year.

Shockley said on Tuesday there was little or no room in the budget for expanding existing programs and agencies or creating new ones. Instead, the commissioners will likely hold their ground on increased requests.

“The county is going to stick to the basics and core services,” he said. “New programs and expanded requests may not be funded. It doesn’t look like we have any choice.”

Most of the increases are related to salaries and benefits for county employees including the Board of Education. Salaries make up 42 percent of the total requested general fund budget. The total expense of the proposed cost-of-living allowances, step increases, scale adjustments and market adjustments for all current county employees totals nearly $5 million and does not include funding for new positions.

As usual, the Board of Education’s requested budget makes up the lion’s share of the county’s proposed budget. This year, for example, the Board of Education is requesting nearly $78 million for its total operating budget for fiscal year 2009, compared to $69.5 million requested last year, representing an increase of about $8.4 million, or just over 12 percent.

However, the budget totals for the Board of Education were adjusted late in the game to reflect an adjustment in the calculated amount for health insurance for Board of Education employees totaling $1.4 million, and the debt service on school projects including the ongoing construction of the Worcester Technical High School and a major renovation and rehabilitation of Pocomoke High School.

Consequently, debt service for the schools in FY 2009 alone increases to nearly $6 million compared to about $3.4 million last year. The adjustments bring the Board of Education’s total request to just over $96 million, representing an increase of around $11 million, or about 13 percent over last year’s total allocation of around $85 million.

Shockley said the commissioners are cognizant of the needs of the county’s outstanding school system, but funding everything requested this year would be difficult.

“We have a long-standing commitment to education in this county and that will stay the same,” he said. “However, certain people seem to think debt service is not part of the Board of Education budget.”

The commission president said the debt service paid for the major school projects had to be figures into the budget this year and for several years down the line.

“We’re going to pay $2.14 million this year for the Vo-tech and will do so for the next 15 years,” he said. “It’s like a credit card. That bill will continue to come due. Every dollar spent on debt service cannot be spent in the classroom.”