County Officials Approve $168M Budget But With Tension

SNOW HILL — A fiscal year 2013-2014 operating budget, totaling $168,643,654, was passed by a vote of 6-1 Tuesday by the Worcester County Commissioners.

The budget includes an increase to Board of Education funding and a 2-percent across-the-board raise for employees, among other expenditures, but will not require a property tax increase. Instead, existing stabilization funds will be used to balance the budget, a move one commissioner protested.

Other highlights of the budget include a $1.6 million increase to the schools’ budget, a $367,572 increase to the sheriff’s office and a $785,456 increase in grants to towns and municipalities, among other changes. School bus contractors will not be included in the 2-percent raise but will get a 1.5-percent increase in hourly rate, mileage rate and per vehicle allotment.

On the revenue side, the current property tax rate of 77 cents per $100 will not be changed, despite revenue from that tax dropping by $5.7 million due to falling property value assessments. Income tax revenue and other tax revenues will be increasing by $1,000,000 and $250,000, respectively. The county will also be applying $2,000,000 from Casino Local Impact funding towards debt service on Worcester Technical High School.

When the expenditures and revenues had been accounted for, the budget was still short, and the commission agreed to take roughly $1.6 million in “budget stabilization funds” from reserves and apply them to the FY2014 operating budget. Commissioner Jim Bunting opposed the move, citing fears that the stabilization funds would dry up quickly and leave the county in trouble.

“What are we going to do when all of that money is gone?” he asked.

Bunting was not given a chance to make his case, however, when in an unusual move Commission President Bud Church called for a vote on the budget without asking for discussion on the item. Immediately after the 6-1 vote, Church asked for a motion to adjourn, at which point Bunting interrupted and requested that he be allowed to offer discussion on the budget. Church said it was too late and that the meeting was over.

“Besides the president, you’re God, I guess,” said Bunting. “I was opposed, by the way.”

After the meeting, Bunting shared the points that he wanted to make.

“I was going to say that if we hadn’t given the 2-percent raise we would not have had to steal the $1.7 million [from the stabilization fund],” he said. “It would have equaled out and we would have truly balanced the budget. This was not balancing the budget.”

The stabilization funds are being used as technically intended, Bunting admitted. But he argued that the money is on course to be depleted in the next few years, which would leave Worcester in the lurch if a disaster or other costly event demanded resources that were no longer there.

“The budget stabilization fund I understand is for exactly that. But it’s for if you have a Hurricane Sandy come through here and all of your bridges get wiped out and the county has to re-build bridges, that’s what it’s there for,” he said. “It’s not to get certain politicians through an election.”

Church asserted that he couldn’t disagree more with what shape Worcester is in.

“The sky is not falling. We’re in an excellent financial state, probably the best county in the state,” Church said. “There is no fear from six of the county commissioners. And I really don’t understand Mr. Bunting’s concern but he’s entitled to his concern, I guess.”

According to Church, the county is on track with funds at least through 2016 to 2017 and even hopes to see a surplus returned to the stabilization fund next year.

Particulars of the budget aside, Bunting added that he felt Church was “disrespectful” by not allowing for discussion on the item and instead jumping to a vote and a quick adjournment.

“I think President Church showed a lack of knowledge of how to run a meeting. He did not give me the ample opportunity to have discussion, which you’re supposed to ask for,” Bunting said. “He never even asked for discussion … I think it was very disrespectful. I knew how the vote was going to go. I knew I was going to be the only one against the budget, but I did want to have my say.”

Church defended the lack of discussion after the meeting. Prior to the meeting, he said that all of the commissioners besides Bunting had told him that after months of debate they had nothing more to say about the budget beyond casting their vote. As for not responding to Bunting when he tried to fit in some discussion, Church claimed that he simply did not hear him and that any brush off was “not intentional.”

“I felt it was the consensus of the commissioners that they didn’t have anything to say,” said Church. “So there was a motion to adjourn. I did not … and I swear to God, I did not hear Mr. Bunting asking to speak.”