SNOW HILL — Worcester County’s fiscal year 2015 budget is within a stone’s throw of becoming balanced this week and includes a salary raise for all county employees with no tax increase.
Facing a $2.4 million budget shortfall following their last budget work session, the County Commission agreed Wednesday on recommendations made by their staff that would narrow that shortfall to just under $100,000.
The biggest changes came from designating $1,342,056 from the unassigned fund balance for things like road paving and government building repairs. There was also a savings of $226,234 realized by eliminating two proposed sheriff’s deputy positions and a savings of about $230,000 made by reducing funding grants to third-party organizations.
“Everybody has their hand out and sometimes you have to prioritize,” said Harold Higgins, chief administrator.
For the most part, the county funded those organizations level with what was given last year though Atlantic General Hospital saw a $25,000 increase this year up to a total of $75,000.
One of the most significant changes was a reduction of $452,602 cut from the budget by reducing the proposed county employee salary raises. The Board of Education requested a STEP increase, 1-percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) and longevity bonuses. As in years past, the school board’s request was extended to cover all county employees. Instead, all county employees will be getting their STEP increase, a .5-percent COLA and longevity bonuses for those who have been employed long enough to exceed their STEPs.
During the discussion, Commissioner Judy Boggs wondered if always grouping the school system and county employees together was the best way to operate.
“Fairness has been eroded because of the system,” Boggs said.
The Board of Education and general county employees are on different STEP schedules, and Boggs complained that the commission has less control over how the school board distributes salary increases than they used to.
Commissioner Jim Bunting pointed out that the salary increases the commission has granted to Board of Education employees, who are technically county employees, have not been distributed in the way that the commission originally designated them. This was most apparent with starting teacher salaries, said Bunting, which are currently 16th in the state.
“The last two years in a row there was a 2-percent increase in salaries for everybody … if the Board of Ed had applied that as a COLA for the last two years in a row we would be ninth, but they didn’t,” said Bunting. “So, the County Commissioners are not the bad guys. If we wanted our starting salaries to rank up there they could have been, they could have been ninth.”
However, the commissioners were reminded that the school board has to negotiate all salary changes with both the teachers’ and support staff’s unions. In the past two years, when the county has granted pay raises, the money has been used to fund STEP increases for current teachers as opposed to bumping up starting salaries. Even with the STEP increases of the past two years, teachers and staff are still behind three pay STEPs due to the recession beginning in 2008 and subsequent salary freezes.
Commissioner Louise Gulyas argued that Boggs was wrong in saying that the commission needs more control over the Board of Education.
“I don’t believe that control is the right word,” said Gulyas. “I don’t think we need to micromanage the Board of Education.”
In addition, Gulyas told the commission that how the board chose to spend the funding in years past wasn’t worth dwelling on.
“We have no right to tell them how to spend their money but we can direct them. And if they choose not to do that then shame on them,” she said. “But I think to sit here and hash out what happened last year and the year before that, the horse is out of the barn, let’s move on.”
Commission President Bud Church agreed and added that he did not like the idea of partitioning Board of Education and general county employees.
“I would never want to make two different county employees. That would be two different citizenships,” he said.
That wasn’t the intention, replied Boggs. The only thing that she was looking for was “an alternative to come back to fairness.” However, the commission voted unanimously, with Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw absent, to include the adjusted salary package in their proposed operating budget for FY15. Boggs called it “the best compromise,” though Gulyas wasn’t happy about re-instating longevity bonuses while cutting COLA down to .5 percent.
The final total for the proposed budget following Wednesday’s work session was $177,981,133 in revenue, $178,030,913 in expenditures, a shortfall of $96,406. Though still hefty, Church noted a $100,000 shortfall should be easy to rectify before it is formally adopted early next month. A vote on a final budget is expected June 3.