County Works On Cutting $7 Million; Showell Project Funding Included

SNOW HILL — Worcester County officials this week began an attempt to reconcile an estimated $7 million-plus budget deficit with a marathon work session during which they examined the spending plan line item by line item to patch together a reconciliation plan.

The County Commissioners and staff on Tuesday met for several hours to begin to balance the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget. Initial requested expenditures came in at around $174 million, while anticipated revenues are estimated at just under $167 million, leaving a gap of over $7 million that must be reconciled through cuts to various departments and programs or an increase in revenue in the form of a tax increase, or both. However, the commissioners have said from the beginning a tax increase is off the table, leaving further cuts to an already bare-bones budget the only solution.

The commissioners began a meticulous review of the budget department-by department and line-by-line on Tuesday and virtually no stone was left unturned. By the end of the day, some departments and programs saw their fiscal year 2014 funding cut while others survived. The following is a quick look at some of the highlights from Tuesday:

(BOLD/CENTER)Fire Companies

The county’s volunteer fire companies have seen their county funding levels decline over the last few years as the recession has dragged on. For example, in fiscal year 2012, the county’s volunteer fire companies received $2.3 million from Worcester, but the figure is expected to dip to just over $1.96 million in the current budget. Commissioner Virgil Shockley said the downward trend had to be reversed for the volunteer companies.

“We need to put a bottom line on this,” he said. “It can’t drop below a certain point. There has to be a floor underneath this thing. We have five small companies working their tails off with fundraising and you see the ladies’ auxiliary handing over checks for $4,000 and $5,000. This is our community, this is our family.”

Commissioner Jimmy Bunting said the declining volunteer fire company funding was necessitated by a drop in property tax assessments, but agreed the county had to hold the line on the funding.

“We want to establish a floor, but the revenue is all based on the assessments,” said Bunting. “While the assessments go down, it doesn’t make it any cheaper to run a fire company.”

Berlin Stormwater Fee

After the town of Berlin passed a graduated stormwater management fee for residential and commercial properties this year, it became apparent Worcester County would have to pay the fees for the properties it operated within the municipalities, which is reflected in the fiscal year 2014 budget. County officials aren’t happy about the new expenditure and vowed to revisit the issue with Berlin officials.

“We have five buildings so we’re going to have to come up with a lot of money” said Bunting. “I think we need to have a talk with the town and see why we’re not exempt. We’re not a business and we’re not a residence. We’re providing services.”

Atlantic General Hospital

Since its inception decades ago, Worcester County has been a partner in Atlantic General Hospital and provides grants of various amounts in each budget cycle. Last year, AGH asked for and received $50,000 from the county, but the request has jumped to $100,000 this year. Some commissioners questioned the increase, pointing out the hospital’s thriving economic condition, citing the facility’s own publicized bottom line.

“I know they need more money and I know what it’s for, but it’s not for expansion,” said Shockley. “I don’t have a problem with the $50,000 we gave them last year. I just don’t know why they keep coming back for more.”

However, Commissioner Louise Gulyas said the county had a fiscal responsibility to support the hospital and her colleagues approved the $100,000 expenditure.

“It’s a community hospital,” said Gulyas. “We said from the get-go we would support this and they really need this money.”

Showell Elementary

There was come discussion about pushing back a planned study of Showell Elementary School another year to save $100,000 in the current budget. Showell Elementary is the next county public school in line for replacement or rehabilitation and a top to bottom study is the next step in that process but it comes with a $100,000 price tag. With Snow Hill High School renovations set to get underway, some wondered if Showell should be put on the back burner this year.

“The thinking is Snow Hill High School won’t start until summer of 2014 and it’s a three-year project, so there is no way to start Showell until Snow Hill is substantially done,” said County Administrator Gerry Mason.

Mason said the $100,000 study would include a systematic check of the entire school to see whether it could be restored and rehabilitated, or if it had to be completely replaced.

“They’ll look at the school from top to bottom and look at all of the systems from heating and air to plumbing and wiring and see if it needs to be scrapped like OCES, or if it can be remodeled,” he said.

After some debate, a consensus was reached to keep the $100,000 Showell Elementary study in the budget.

“I feel strongly they need a new school” said Commissioner Judy Boggs. “It’s a lot like OCES. Children that age don’t adjust well to change. My understanding is there is enough acreage to build a new school while the old school stays open.”

Snow Hill Opera House

Earlier this month, the County Commissioners heard a plea from the town of Snow Hill for a $200,000 grant to help stabilize and restore the old Mason’s Opera House, which has been re-christened the Arts and Education Center in Snow Hill. The project calls for restoring the historic structure and creating an arts and entertainment hub in the county seat, but the Commissioners were not ready to make the entire $200,000 investment this year.

“I think it’s an admirable project, but they need to go out and get some donations to sustain it,” said Bunting.

Boggs said Snow Hill should be given the entire grant because of the precedents already set.

“I’m in favor of giving Snow Hill a chance,” said Boggs. “We’ve supported Ocean City and the Art League, and we’ve supported the Marva Theater in Pocomoke.”

Boggs made a motion to include $200,000 for the project, but the motion failed. Shockley then made a motion to include $100,000 for the Snow Hill Opera House with the stipulation the money would be used to stabilize the structure until a long-term solution could be found and that motion passed.