SNOW HILL — After a second budget work session, the forecast coming from the Worcester County Commission this week is bleaker than ever.
“Nobody’s going to get what they want,” said Commission President Bud Church.
Several commissioners agreed that this is shaping up to be the tightest budgets in recent memory.
“I don’t know of anyone that’s going to jump up and down over it,” said Church, who called the budget the worst he had seen in his decade on the commission.
With the commission calling for a blanket 10-percent cut to all department budgets, several heads are deeming the request impossible.
“The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office is not able to reduce its operating budget another 10 percent,” wrote Sheriff Reggie Mason in a letter to the commission.
Mason was even more adamant in person Tuesday that his department has already been squeezed dry and actually requested that his budget be increased by 9 percent for fiscal year 2013.
“We just can’t continue,” he said in defense of the increase.
Mason asked the commission for extra funding for office supplies and radio repairs. He also stressed the rising costs of ammunition and how his department could not afford to slack in that area.
“I know that when I’m out there, I don’t want to have to throw stones at the bad guys,” Mason said.
Another big cost was supporting events at Ocean City, he explained. With everything from concerts to parades taking place in the resort, usually in the summer, Mason told the commission that his department is being called on more and more to back-up the Ocean City Police Department with additional security.
Church acknowledged the strain being placed on the Sheriff’s department, but pointed out that those events brought in a lot of revenue both to the resort and to Worcester.
“Those events are putting money into the county,” he said. “There’s a tradeoff there.”
Emergency Services Director Teresa Owens also told the commission that her department would not be able to reach the 10-percent cut goal that had been set. In fact, Owens admitted that she was only able to shave about 1 percent from this year’s budget compared to last. However, she reminded the commissioners that over the last three years her budget has been reduced by over 30 percent.
Commissioner Madison Bunting sympathized with the departments and accounted an old adage about not being able to squeeze blood out of a turnip.
“I think we’ve gotten about all of the blood we can get out of the departments,” he said.
The accounts from Mason and Owens were echoed by many other department heads. Even those that were able to make significant cuts warned that a volatile Annapolis could drop more costs on the county.
State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby was able to trim about 9 percent of his proposed budget from FY2012. However, he was upfront with the commission that a potential state law in the works might bring him back in the near future for more funding.
A proposed state law would require public defenders be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to represent suspects in every district court hearing, even minor matters like initial bail reviews. If the bill passes, Oglesby told the commissioners that he would most likely need another two prosecutors added to his staff so that he would always have someone available to attend the hearings on behalf of the community interest.
“It would be the prudent thing to do,” he said.
Though the law has yet to pass, it has been in the system for more than a month and Oglesby expects a ruling on it in the near future. If passed, he estimated that the costs attached to the law could be in the hundreds of millions statewide.
“And it’s an unfunded mandate,” he said.
The day after hearing from Oglesby, the commission unloaded once again on what many commissioners have been calling an increasingly out-of-touch and wasteful Annapolis.
“They’re not prudent with their budget,” said Bunting.
Bunting was critical of several anticipated cost shifts from the state to the county, including the much bemoaned teacher pension cost transfer. He also leveled some scorn at programs that he believes Annapolis is being unrealistic about, including an overall push for solar installations.
While Bunting is in favor of solar energy as a concept, he was not happy with what he considers an impractical approach to installing panels that are usually being paid for, to a degree, by rebates and credits being offered by government.
Those costs, said Bunting, are not lining up with the long-term savings from the installations, many of which take a decade or more to break even. He compared the future payoff of solar panels to how long their warranties last and questioned if now was the time to put so much into solar, instead of waiting a few years for the technology to become more efficient.
“It’s not the right time for them,” he said.
The county can only do so much to sway the state, however, and everyone on the commission agreed that the next few weeks it’s critical to watch the General Assembly.
Though the work session was dreary, Church was adamant that Worcester will survive the spring and he’s hopeful it will do so without having to resort to one of the most drastic and least popular budget trimming techniques — layoffs.
“From my personal point of view, I will not vote for layoffs,” he said.
Unable to speak for the rest of the commission, Church still expressed confidence that his colleagues would vote to avoid layoffs as well. While that’s good news for county employees, it does still answer the question of how the fiscal year 2013 budget, which is currently facing a $17 million shortfall, will be leveled.
Last week, Church called a property tax increase to even out the budget, “inevitable,” though he admitted that it would likely have to come with cuts to the already strained budget as well. Commissioners Virgil Church and Judy Boggs both agreed with Church on the likelihood of a tax bump this year.
“We do not have a rainy day fund … there’s no extra money,” said Boggs. “It’s obvious we can’t balance the budget with the revenue we have.”
Bunting, despite his assertion that county departments are already bled dry, staunchly opposes a tax hike.
“Personally, I’m against raising taxes at all,” he said.
The most Bunting confirmed he is willing to consider is a 3-cent tax increase, which would generate only around $4 million, still leaving a significant gap that would have to be addressed through cuts.
“That’s my upper limit,” said Bunting.
Bunting noted that he was not in favor of any extra requests being made on the stressed budget this year, including proposed employee raises.
“I’m definitely not for giving anybody raises,” said Bunting.
Bunting added, “It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for someone who has a guaranteed check” when much of the county is either out of work or barely hanging on.
The General Assembly concludes on April 9, at which point the commissioners plan on evaluating the full extent of the damages inflicted by Annapolis on Worcester. There will be additional budget work sessions on May 8 and 21, with a public hearing scheduled for May 22. A final budget will be voted on June 5.