County Officials Face $327K Shortfall

SNOW HILL – No progress was made toward balancing the Worcester County budget Wednesday during a work session that saw none of the necessary $327,000  in cuts made.

“You’ve either got to come up with additional revenues or additional cuts,” said county administrator Gerry Mason Wednesday.

The County Commissioners face a less daunting task than originally projected, after the expected $6 million shortfall was reduced through a new way to handle retirement funding, also known as OPEB funding, by creating a trust.

The county may also save some money through a limited early retirement bonus approved by the County Commissioners at their regular meeting Tuesday.

County employees over 62 years of age, with five years of service who are also vested in the Maryland retirement fund, who decided to retire by July 1 would receive one-third of their salary in lump sum as a bonus.

“It would be advantageous to the county to reduce staffing,” said county Human Resources Director George Bradley.

“Unfortunately, we’ve got to do something and I think it’s a step in the right direction to start,” said County Commissioner Bobby Cowger.

Bradley estimated that 12 to 15 employees might take advantage of the early retirement bonus.

The county staff needs to look at a plan to downsize county government, Cowger said Tuesday.

“We’ve got to at least look at it. Our time is running short,” he said.

County elected officials did not seem to be able to make a decisive move to reduce expenses, refusing, despite the deficit, to  eliminate three part-time summer grass cutters for parks and recreation and $50,000 in pay, for example.

The commissioners agreed with the staff recommendation, already included in the budget, to cut the grants to towns from $450,000 to $400,000, an 11-percent decrease.

Ocean City, which receives more than one source of funding from the county, not only an unrestricted grant, saw just a 9-percent cut.

Gulyas, who represents Ocean City, appeared to have changed her mind over the 10 percent cut supported by other commissioners, suggesting just a 3-percent cut to town grants at the work session.

Some commissioners braced her over the change, asking if town representatives or citizens had prevailed upon her to alter her stance.

“Not one soul has said a word to me,” said Gulyas.

“All of us represent towns and we all know we have to save some money here,” said Boggs.

Contrary to earlier reports, the local non-profits have been assigned flat funding in the county budget for the next fiscal year instead of receiving nothing. 

Earlier this spring, non-profits received a letter implying or stating that no funds would be assigned to them this upcoming fiscal year, a move confirmed by County Commission President Louise Gulyas at the time. The commissioners said this week that the letter was misinterpreted.

Commissioner Judy Boggs questioned whether Worcester Youth and Family Services should receive over $100,000. “I think money could be more fairly distributed,” Boggs said.

“This is normally what they would receive,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

Support for the grants to county non-profits was firm.

“I think in this economy, this is where the money should go. These are the people that need help,” Boggs said.

“These are the agencies that are going to be called upon because of the rough economic times,” said Commissioner Linda Busick.

The commissioners also decided to add some funding back into the NASA Wallop’s Island spaceport internship program, originally recommended by staff to be reduced $50,000.

“That’s not a good idea,” said Gulyas.

“I do have real heart burn about that. That’s been a star in our crown,” said Boggs.

The commissioners asked staff to look at reducing costs through a new take-home vehicle policy, perhaps restricting take-home vehicles to people residing within certain mileage of their work site.

 “I would look at cutting some of the vehicles,” said Gulyas.

Shockley asked staff to check into whether confiscated drug money could be used to purchase a new tactical van for the county’s tactical police team.

“I’m unaware we’re confiscating that kind of money,” said Mason.

Cowger brought up the long-term implications of the cuts for next fiscal year, saying that the year after will be just as bad, and there will be nothing left to cut.

“Certainly nobody’s going to raise taxes next year because it’s an election year,” Cowger said.

He predicted that the year after the election, fiscal 2011, the county would have to make up for two years of a bare bones budget.

“You’re going to see the largest tax increase the county has ever seen,” Cowger said.

The county will have to reorganize for that eventuality, Gulyas said.

Cowger asked Mason to look seriously into the numbers behind furloughs and lay-offs for county employees.

The concern now is to balance the budget, which must be done next week. The budget must be approved at the June 2 commissioner meeting.

The only way to balance the budget is to cut services. “These services are going to be limited now and they’re going to have to live with it,” Mason said.