Health Dept. Explains Need For More Funds

SNOW HILL – The annual public budget meeting for Worcester County, held Tuesday night in Snow Hill, was relatively subdued, with little controversy on the slate, unlike in past years when new schools and requests for a smaller Homestead Tax Credit got citizens excited.

The County Commissioners will spend the next month trimming $14 million in requests from the budget, turning $202 million of budget requests into $188 million of spending.

The commissioners said repeatedly over the winter and during the spring that they would not raise taxes, despite the soft housing market and state cuts.

The usual pleas to bring the county tax rate, 70 cents per $100 of assessed value, down to the constant yield rate, 61.9 cents per $100 of assessed value, were absent this year. The downturn in the economy and state of Maryland cuts did elicit a few special appeals at this week’s hearing, however.

Debbie Goeller, Worcester County Health Department health officer, went to the microphone in Snow Hill High School, as department heads rarely do, to explain why the health department is asking Worcester County for nearly $1 million more than last year.

“I felt it was important to let the public know what was driving this significant increase,” Goeller said.

The health department is a partnership between the state and the county, she said, with Worcester County funding 73 percent of the budget. In fiscal year 2009, the state has not allocated necessary funding for some grants and employees.

“We are definitely facing the potential for layoffs,” Goeller said, adding that positions that become vacant are being left empty to reduce the impact of any staff reductions.

Services will be reduced if the County Commissioners cannot fund the health department’s full request. Goeller has already identified services to cut, such as the clinic in Ocean City during the off season, the 2009 Hot Boards program, less services in Pocomoke City and fewer hours to request birth and death certificates.

“There likely will be additional reductions to follow. These are the ones we’ve been able to come up with so far,” Goeller said. “We are not trying to expand at all. We are trying to hold us where we have been in staffing and services and avoiding layoffs wherever possible.”

The irony is that the economy may require the health department to cut programs and offerings just when more people are turning to the agency for health services, she said.

Resident Harold Scrimgeour urged the County Commissioners to reduce spending for the Development Review and Permitting Department in line with the expected 30 to 40 percent reduction in building permits, instead of funding it at the same level as last year.

On a different topic, the Worcester County Fair needs more money to keep going.

“Costs continue to rise. We have to pay more for tents. We have to pay more for entertainment,” said Mark Williams, president of the Worcester County Fair Board. “If we didn’t have the county’s financial support, we wouldn’t have a fair.”

Melanie Pursel, director of the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, asked the commissioners to fund the electronic sign the chamber has proposed for West Ocean City. The sign, she said, would be used for emergency messages, Amber alerts and to advertise community events and attractions.

The sign would be exposed to 40,000 vehicles a year, according to Pursel.

“We would really rather see the county’s name on something like this than some big corporate sponsor,” Pursel said.

The commissioners will hold budget work sessions on May 21 and May 27. By law, the commissioners must pass the fiscal year 2009 budget on June 3.