County Balances Budget With Steady Property Tax Rate

SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners approved a $189.5 million budget for fiscal year 2009 on Tuesday.

Over $13.1 million was cut from $202 million in budget requests to meet the projected revenue levels for FY 09.

“There are a lot of things all of us up here wish we could have given…you have to make choices,” said County Commission President Virgil Shockley. “We stuck to the priorities that are important to the county. This is a solid budget and I think we can all be proud of it.”

The commissioners cut $2 million from the Board of Education’s requests and $11.1 million from all other county departments and agencies to balance the budget.

The county will see an $8.4 million increase in real property tax revenues, after state reassessments, but will lose out on about $10 million in potential property tax revenues because of the 3 percent Homestead Tax Credit.

Transfer tax, recordation tax, and investment interest have decreased by $2.5 million.

The County Commissioners vowed earlier this year not to raise taxes despite the slower revenue stream expected.

“The real property tax rate is proposed to stay at 70 cents,” said county Chief Administrator Gerry Mason.           

The commissioners have said they would take care of county staff this year, and did so, funding salary increases by up to 6 percent for county employees, with cost of living and step increases, and covering a 17-percent increase in employee health insurance costs.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Shockley,

“I think we did very well by our employees,” Commissioner Louise Gulyas said.

The Worcester County Board of Education will also see salary increases up to 6 percent, with starting teacher salaries upped to $42,222 per year.

The county will fund a $75.9 million operating budget for the Board of Education. With debt service and post employment benefits costs, total education funding was set at $94.4 million for FY 09.

The school board has also been assigned $16.7 million in state money and funding from other sources.

The county education budget includes $6.4 million overall in new funds, from both county and state sources.

The cost per student, using a countywide student body of 6,747, for FY 09 is $16,473. That does not include federal restricted program funds.

The commissioners assigned funding for eight new positions at Worcester Technical High School, scheduled to open in the fall, including a residential wiring instructor, three educational assistants for special education students, a nurse, a secretary and two custodians.

The county will now pay for previously grant funded after-school programs for fourth and fifth grades and high school students now that the grants have expired.

County high schools will be able to establish “Bridge Plan” programs for graduating students who cannot pass the state tests required to graduate after the commissioners allocated the funding. The Commissioners also assigned part of the budget to funding a pilot Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in one school.

Technology improvements and school building improvements were each assigned $400,000, and $517,000 assigned to utilities and upkeep to keep the physical aspects of the school system on track.

In the rest of Worcester County, elected officials assigned $736,000 to the Health Department to make up for state cuts of more than $1 million. The commissioners assigned the funding to keep programs open for the public.

Fire and ambulance companies will see increases of $556,000. Wor-Wic Community College will garner $402,000, an increase in the annual appropriation, as well as $250,000 to upgrade teaching technology, and $128,000 for the new Allied Health building.

The county will also contribute $250,000 to Atlantic General Hospital’s new building, as long as the State of Maryland and Ocean City give matching funds, and $250,000 to the Worcester County Developmental Center for their capital campaign.

A new plan to offer full retirement benefits to Sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers at 50 and 55 respectively, with 25 years of service, prompted the assignment of an additional $750,000 to law enforcement retirement.

 The commissioners supported in principle but could not afford to fund several initiatives, include the performing arts center.

“When there’s no money, something like that has to go on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean it will never happen,” said Gulyas.

Next year could be as difficult or more so.

“Times are tight. I’m hearing from the delegates and senators, it’s going to get tighter,” Shockley said.

Gulyas agreed future years look as strained as this year.

“We did not raise taxes this year, but I’m not guaranteeing it for next year because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gulyas said.