County To Start Thorny Budget Process Earlier Next Year

SNOW HILL – Worcester County will keep an eye on the state of Maryland as it begins its budget process for fiscal year 2011, which will begin 30 days earlier than usual to allow county elected officials more time to deal with major projected revenue reductions.

“You’re going to have a lot more time. It’s going to be a lot tougher budget,” said county administrator Gerry Mason.

“I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anybody,” said Commissioner Bud Church, president of the board.

Fiscal year 2011 revenue could drop by as much as $9 million, county staff predicted in early December. Just five months into fiscal year 2010, the county is already $1.5 million short, staff reported at the same time, and that deficit could add to the next fiscal year’s budget woes.

How the commissioners will cope with this reduction in revenue remains to be seen, but after the cuts made for the current fiscal year, further expenditure reductions could be difficult to find.

“We cut so much in the budget I don’t know whether there’s someplace else to cut without considerable pain,” Commissioner Judy Boggs said.

The state of Maryland is a major factor in the county budget, having adopted a habit of making further cuts after the counties have struck their budgets.

“It is very, very difficult when you strive to balance a budget and the state is irresponsibly coming back between budgets,” said Boggs.

Boggs, who keeps an eye on the Maryland General Assembly as Worcester County’s representative to the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), pointed out that the state has already decimated budgets for local state agencies like the Health Department and Social Services.

“We’re talking about the most vulnerable people,” Boggs said. “When you cut valuable programs for the most vulnerable people, they don’t have an advocacy group.”

Boggs said she also fears that the state will use stimulus funding to plug holes in the budget, gaps which will still be there when stimulus funding expires.

“Our county has been very conservative. What we’re hearing from the state is, you’ve been conservative and you have lots of flexibility to raise your taxes,” Boggs said.

All seven county commissioners are up for re-election in fall 2010, and taxes are not typically raised in election years.

Boggs said she could speak only for herself, not the other commissioners, as far as how she will approach the budget cycle.

“My personal philosophy is in this recession our people are feeling their own economic problems…the last thing we want to do is hurt our citizens,” she said.

Instead of calling state budget reductions “cuts,” Boggs suspects the state will force counties to take on responsibility for funding the assessments office or part of the teachers pensions, which will be a cut to the county, no matter how the state prefers to refer to it.

As a way to raise new revenue, there has been talk of a higher state gasoline tax, but Boggs said she feels that will only benefit state, not county, coffers.

Worcester County will have to rely on more populous and more influential counties for help in the state legislature, Boggs said.

“The bottom line is Worcester County is a rural county with only 50,000 people. In terms of who has power in the legislature, it’s not us. What may save us is the big counties who do have power within the legislature have significant problems also,” Boggs said.

As for school funding, the needs of the larger, more heavily populated counties could help Worcester County the same way, according to Boggs.  Last year, the county by state law had to fund the school system at the same level as the year before under a binding requirement known as Maintenance of Effort (MOE). MACo has established an MOE study group and plans to address that issue with the legislature.

The commissioners began the budget process at the end of last week with the distribution of fiscal year 2011 operating budget information.

The Worcester County Board of Education, Wor-Wic Community College and the municipalities and Ocean Pines must submit their operating budgets to the county by Feb. 25.

The commissioners will review those operating budgets March 2. A week later, the commissioners will meet with the Board of Education and review operating budgets with other departments and agencies.

County elected officials will then receive the requested operating budget on March 23.

The public budget hearing will be held May 4 at Snow Hill High School. That will be followed by commissioner budget work sessions on May 11 and 25 and 26, if necessary. The commissioners must adopt the operating budget on June 1.

“We have our work cut out for us,” said Boggs.