NEW FOR THURSDAY: Worcester Blames State Legislature For 7-Cent Tax Increase

SNOW HILL — The official vote is in — property taxes in Worcester County will increase 7 cents per $100 of assessed value next year for the first time in eight years while county employees will receive a 2 percent raise for the first time in three years. The total fiscal year budget came in at $165,904,256.

Though the budget was able to pass relatively unscathed in a 5-2 vote, none of the County Commissioners claimed to be entirely satisfied with the end product and most of them laid the majority of the blame on the state.

“The incompetence we have at the state level, their inability to control spending, has put a burden on every county in the state,” said Commission President Bud Church. “The state has shot us in the foot.”

Church was referring to a large number of unfunded state mandates that Annapolis has passed down to the county level this year, such as teacher pension costs, a historically state-absorbed expense. The teacher’s pensions, along with similar new expenses, were cited by Church and several members of the commission as the main justification behind raising the property tax rate from the current 70 cents to 77 cents.

“We can no longer afford to carry the burden of taking money out of the reserves to pay bills and absorbing the costs the state passes along to us,” said Church.

Chief Administrative Officer Gerald Mason agreed that Worcester can’t keep up with state demands at the current tax rate. He also pointed out that even at 77 cents the county is still under constant yield, meaning less revenue is coming in from property taxes than last year due to declining real-estate values. Because property across Worcester is worth less, owners are being taxed for less.

To reach constant yield, the rate would need to be increased to 77.23 cents By only going to 77 cents, the commission is sacrificing $1.7 million in revenue from last year. Additionally, Mason noted that property taxes haven’t been raised in eight years, and the last time they were adjusted in 2005 they were lowered from 73 cents to the current 70 cents.

However, Commissioner Madison Bunting made it clear that he would have liked to see taxes raised by less than 7 cents approved this week.

“I think we could have actually decreased taxes by a couple of cents,” he said.

Bunting pointed out that two budget work sessions had been cancelled this season, two opportunities that he believes could have been used to trim more fat from the end proposal, which would have allowed the commission to raise taxes by only 5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation or 6 cents in his opinion.

Another thorn for Bunting is the 2-percent raise the commission decided to offer to every county employee. Though the actual cost of granting the raise is only $1.5 million, a small portion of the revenue generated by the 7-cent increase, Bunting stressed that every dollar counted, and if raises were skipped again this year, the commission would have had an easier time coming in closer to a 6-cent hike.

“I still don’t think this is the proper time to give county and Board of Education employees a raise,” he said.

Bunting did admit that it was “a hard situation” but chose to vote against the final budget.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley also voted against the budget. However, his dissatisfaction stemmed from the commission’s decision not to include funding in the budget to pursue the bond market for Snow Hill High School renovations this year. It’s a move Shockley believes could jeopardize Worcester’s chances to capitalize on the low interest rates currently available.

But the rest of the commission remained supportive of the final product, though all of them admitted that arriving at the 7-cent increase was not an easy decision.

“Nobody wants to pay more,” said Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw, “whether it’s at the pump, in taxes, or at the supermarket.” But Lockfaw argued that “if we want to rise, there’s a price.”

Like Church, he deposited the lion’s share of the blame directly on the state and suggested that the many emails and phone calls over the budget aimed at the commissioners would be more effective if they went to state legislators.

Commissioner Louise Gulyas said that she also struggled over the budget but lent her support to it because she felt employees are due for a raise after three years of hard work without complaint. She went on to say that the final budget, though it is only funding the Board of Education (BoE) at a Maintenance of Effort level of funding, $851,433 less than the level funding the board requested, reflected well for the schools, especially since the employee raises originated after the school board’s request for a teacher pay increase.

Church predicted that even after raising the property tax Worcester, which previously held the second lowest rate in the state, will probably still be in the bottom two or three.

“We can still be very proud, even with the tax increase, of what we do in Worcester County,” he said.