Commissioners Hear Annual Budget Requests

SNOW HILL – The Worcester County budget season has officially begun with the submission of major funding requests from the Worcester County Board of Education and the four county municipalities on Tuesday morning.

A reduction in state funds, including police and highway money, and continuing reductions in tax revenue, put Worcester County’s towns and Ocean Pines in a difficult position similar to the county’s, all the speakers acknowledged.

Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan took the podium before the County Commissioners first. Meehan noted that during last year’s budget process, Ocean City asked for 3-percent less than usual, in line with cuts made in county departments.

“What we actually received was about 9.5 percent less than we received the previous year,” said Meehan.

Ocean City understands the budget challenges Worcester County is facing, as the resort is under the same challenges. The resort is trying to “right size” government and has made several changes in the last few years to reduce expenses. The town hopes to save up to $900,000 this year through offering retirement incentives to senior employees, Meehan said.

One expense that Ocean City has not cut is tourism advertising, instead spending more on marketing the resort to potential vacationers in order to earn more. As a result, room tax revenues in 2010 stayed level with room tax revenues from 2009 and the food tax numbers were strong.

“We ask that you fund us at the same level you did fund us at last year,” Meehan said. 

Meehan ended his presentation with a request to the commissioners to begin televising their meetings.

“I would hope that you will consider sometime in the future televising your commissioner meetings,” said Meehan.

About 80 percent of property owners live 20 miles away from Snow Hill, Meehan said. People also work during the day when commissioner meetings are held.

“There are a lot of people very interested in government,” Meehan said. “By televising your meetings, you’d open up the county government to citizens.”

When Ocean City began televising town council meetings, many were apprehensive, he said, but soon learned that there were no negative repercussions and that no one even realizes the meeting is being taped as it happens.

“I can’t tell you how many people watch those meetings and learn about Ocean City government and learn about what we do,” said Meehan.

The county could start with streaming video of meetings on the county website, he suggested.

“It really is a valuable service to the community and I’d hope you’d take that into consideration,” said Meehan.

 The commissioners made no response to Meehan’s suggestion.

Berlin, represented by Councilman Troy Purnell, requested the same $400,000 grant as last fiscal year. Berlin is expecting to see its income fall by $596,000, according to a letter from Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, read by Purnell.

“As we begin budgeting for FY 11, we anticipate a further reduction in revenues and expenditures for the upcoming year,” Williams wrote.

When it came time to hear from Snow Hill, Councilwoman Rebecca Bowman said, “We’re in the same boat as everyone else to come before you.”

Snow Hill, as the county seat, needs to keep up appearances, Bowman said, but that is difficult in this economy.

“We’re left with enough money this year to maybe fix potholes,” Bowman said.

The reductions in state police aid put citizens in danger and puts more of a burden on county and state law enforcement to help towns, said Bowman.

Pocomoke City Mayor Mike McDermott said he hopes the county can continue to share its generous grants with the towns and asked that the county ensure Pocomoke receives all the pass-throughs and categorical funding it normally does.

Tom Olson, general manager of the Ocean Pines Association (OPA), asked the county to once again grant the OPA $400,000 to defray the cost of the association’s police department. The OPA covers most of the $1.4 million cost of the police, Olson said.

Severe flooding issues on Beachamp Rd., which would cost about $500,000 to correct, are the county’s concern, Olson said, but so many Ocean Pines residents are affected that the OPA is offering manpower and equipment to take care of the problems if the county provides the materials this year.

The schools also presented their funding request Tuesday morning, a Maintenance of Effort budget that asks for level funding per pupil.

“It is a budget we balanced making the best of a difficult situation,” said Board of Education Chair Bob Hulburd.

The school board is concerned about what happens next year, after two years of limited funding meant to maintain the status quo, Hulburd said, which if continued could halt educational progress in the county.

“Sustaining and maintaining will leave our children behind, eventually,” said Hulburd.

Commission President Bud Church told the group,   “We’re all in this boat together. We’re going to work with you to get through this crisis together.”