Student Commissioners Raise Property Tax

SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Commissioners once again turned over their chairs to youthful replacements this week.

Tuesday was the county’s annual “Students in Government Day,” an event where local high school students take over the roles of commissioners and get a chance to render their own verdict on past cases.

The agenda for the temporary legislators was made up of issues that had come over the course of the previous year. Student commissioners had to deal with everything from bid approvals to recycling requests to balancing the yearly budget.

Additionally, there was a repeat of some of the more memorable public hearings from last year, including a chance to revisit the debate over the mandatory installation of residential sprinkler systems.

Before the assembly convened, the students held an election amongst themselves to determine who would act in which position during the meeting. Rachel Thompson and William Bishop, both representatives of Stephen Decatur High School, were elected President and Vice President, respectfully. The group quickly cleared a large number of administrative matters, settling all with a unanimous vote every time but one. Once the floor opened for public input on the sprinkler debate, however, there was considerably more discussion.

Several months ago, one of the biggest issues on the county commissioner’s agenda was whether Worcester would follow the state law requiring all newly built one- and two-family dwellings to have automatic sprinkler systems installed. Opinions were strong on both sides, with developers and potential home buyers pointing out that the sprinklers would come with a hefty price tag and, with the economy lagging, especially the real estate market, that price tag could affect someone’s willingness to buy a home.

On the other side, representatives of local fire departments and other safety advocates claimed that a price tag couldn’t be put on saving lives.

After multiple discussions and weeks of debate, the County Commissioners eventually ruled that the current standard safety measures in place, such as smoke alarms, were effective enough that making the expensive sprinkler systems mandatory would be excessive and unfair to homeowners already struggling with costs.

However, the issue received a second look when the student commissioners were in session.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Director of Development Review and Permitting Ed Tudor warned the temporary commission.

County Fire Marshall Jeff McMahon, who had been a leading voice in the call to make sprinklers mandatory during the original debate, once again presented his case, this time to a much younger group of officials.

“It’s like having a firefighter on duty 24 hours a day,” McMahon said of residential sprinkler systems.

Besides the obvious benefit the systems impart on the homeowner, McMahon also pointed out that having sprinklers installed in a home meant less risk for the fire fighters who might need to enter the building.

“I worry about the fire fighters who have to go in there,” he said.

After McMahon was done, additional testimony was provided by county employees acting as characters, such as concerned developers and insurance representatives.

In the end, the student commissioners echoed their predecessors and voted to opt-out of the state law, leaving the decision on whether to install sprinklers up to the homeowner.

“I think it’s a great lifesaving tool,” said Bishop of the sprinklers.

However, he added that because of the trouble in the housing market, making the systems mandatory would be unrealistic.

While less dramatic than the sprinkler hearing, the student commissioners ended the meeting with an equally contentious issue: balancing the county budget.

The group was faced with a scenario where Worcester was $1,292,000 over budget for the 2011/2012 fiscal year and had to either eliminate county programs or increase taxes.

However, instead of eliminating any programs outright, the student commissioners instead chose to reduce several of them. The county’s NASA program was cut from 100 students down to 50, county swim lessons were reduced to one month as opposed to two, and the Ocean City Library’s hours of operations were scaled back to three days a week during the November-March stretch.

As that wasn’t enough to completely balance the deficit, the student commissioners also elected to raise the county property tax from 70 cents to 71 cents, which added $805,000 to the budget. After all of the changes, the county ended up with $78,000 in revenue after expenditures. The student commissioners decided to hold on to that money in case other budget issues arose.

“It’s a good buffer,” said Bishop.