SNOW HILL – In an effort to balance the coming year’s budget, the Worcester County Commissioners are considering as much as a 14-cent property tax increase.
Commissioners are expected to decide next week during a budget session whether to advertise for a potential property tax increase of 6.7 cents or an increase of 14.4 cents. According to county staff, it would take a 6.7-cent increase to fund a budget in line with that of the current year while it would take a 14.4-cent hike to fund all of the budget requests for FY 2016.
“If we set it at six cents, everybody’s going to know we’re cutting eight cents somewhere,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said. “Once we advertise this we can’t go to eight [cents] or nine [cents]. We’re stuck at six.”
Kathy Whited, Worcester County’s budget officer, said the county was required to advertise any potential increase to the public. She said Maryland’s Department of Assessments and Taxation asked that advertised rates be “a good faith estimate” of the rate that would eventually be passed. Because the commissioners had made no indication they would approve a budget funding every one of the requests the county received, such as those from the Board of Education and other county departments, she did not recommend advertising the 14.4-cent increase it would take to fund them.
“That’s not a good faith estimate,” she said.
Several commissioners said they objected to proposing an increase that wouldn’t allow them to consider budget requests, which haven’t even all been presented yet.
“This is saying we’ve already made our mind up and we shouldn’t even have a budget hearing,” Commissioner Jim Bunting said. “I don’t want the public thinking we’ve already made up our mind.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino asked whether the budget process could be adjusted in the future so that the commissioners had at least heard all of the budget requests before they set a number for a potential tax increase.
“It seems to me the process is a little convoluted,” he said. “We haven’t had the opportunity to scrub the budget as a body. We haven’t heard from all the departments, but we’re required to announce we’re looking at a tax increase. I find it disconcerting.”
County staff said much of the process and the dates involved were mandated by law.
“You have to get this ad out there,” Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said.
Bunting asked what he was supposed to tell constituents who said the commissioners had already made up their minds on a budget. Higgins replied that county officials had made it clear all along that the $22 million shortfall faced by the county would be reconciled through raising revenues or cutting expenses.
Whited pointed out that the county had close to $10 million in budget stabilization funds that could be used as well.
“But if we use all of the budget stabilization funds this year we’re SOL next year,” Bertino said.
Mitrecic said he had little faith in budget stabilization funds in general and said the county needed to begin thinking two to three years ahead to ensure adequate funding.
Mitrecic also questioned advertising the tax increase as 6.7 cents and made the motion to table the matter until the April 14 budget session.
“I understand this is the number staff came up with,” he said, adding that he appreciated the effort that had been made. “But once we get that number in this advertisement it hems us in to a position we don’t want to find ourselves in.”
Worcester County’s current tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation has been in place since FY 2013. Before that, from FY 2007 to FY 2012, it was 70 cents per $100 of assessed value.