SNOW HILL – Concerns about a potential tax increase from some and pleas for a fully-funded school system from others highlighted the annual public budget hearing hosted by the Worcester County Commissioners.
Dozens of area residents, many of them teachers, shared their thoughts on the county’s proposed FY 2016 budget during the lengthy hearing at Snow Hill Middle School May 5. The budget, which the commissioners need to finalize by early June, is not yet balanced and features a $22 million shortfall. The 15-cent property tax increase it would take to fully fund the budget drew criticism from several citizens, many of them seniors.
“If my taxes increase by 15 cents that’s going to put a lot of pressure on me, an individual in a situation with a fixed income,” Ocean Pines resident Jack Collins said. “I’m no longer productive. I do the best I can. Every time there’s an increase it squeezes a little bit more.”
Ocean City retiree John Adkins, 68, said that between his tax bill, homeowner’s insurance and flood insurance he spent more than $7,000 a year.
“It’s hard,” he said.
He added that most of the county’s property tax income came from Ocean City.
“If you didn’t have Ocean City where would you be?” he said. “As a person that’s retired on a fixed income, it’s something for you to think about. There are a lot of us retired here.”
Gary Marshall had similar comments.
“If you continue to raise taxes, I think you’ll have a lot of people leaving Ocean City and going to Delaware,” he said. “I think we need to do everything we can to ensure Ocean City continues to grow.”
Ocean Pines resident Carol Frazier told officials she was frustrated to learn that the Oscar Purnell house, which the county spent close to $1 million renovating, was set to be given to the Town of Snow Hill.
“It was like $1 million flushed down the drain,” she said.
Frazier was also critical of the proposed tax increase. As a secretary, she said she struggled to get by on her salary.
“A tax increase for me would be devastating,” she said.
She pointed out that as usual, the school board’s budget request — $82.7 million — was the largest of any county department.
“We already spend more per pupil than any jurisdiction in the state,” she said.
Gwen Cordner, an Ocean City resident, called the school board’s proposed budget unsustainable. She referenced the Maintenance of Effort requirement, which obligates the county to keep funding at a relatively constant level from year to year.
“Keep in mind every increase in the Board of Education budget shackles Worcester County taxpayers to no hope of future spending reductions,” she said.
In spite of the criticism by some, many of those in attendance advocated for the school system. Stephanie Drummel, parent of a child who attends Cedar Chapel Special School, asked the commissioners to provide the Board of Education with funding for technology and to consider salary increases for teachers.
“If you don’t pay them, they’re going to leave us,” she said.
Jeff Bacon, a Snow Hill resident, drew applause from the crowd when he said he wasn’t averse to a property tax increase. He said that Worcester County included an ocean resort, America’s Coolest Small Town and plenty of open space and farmland.
“We have the best of all worlds and I think we should appreciate that,” he said. “A tax increase is justified.”
Brian Garrett, parent of a Worcester County student, said he was willing to accept a tax increase if it meant teachers and the school system would receive the financial support needed to provide students with a world class education.
“I’d like to invest in the future of my kid and the future of every kid in Worcester County,” he said.
Beth Shockley-Lynch, a first-grade teacher and president of the Worcester County Teacher’s Association, stressed the importance of her profession.
“Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions,” she said.
She said increases in the school system’s budget were essential.
“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy but it will be worth it,” she said.
She said a teacher in Wicomico County with 14 years of experience was currently making $5,800 to $7,300 more a year than a teacher with the same level of experience in Worcester County.
Teacher Dawn Stutzel said 48 percent of the county’s teachers would earn more if they went to Wicomico or Somerset counties. She said she was making $11,000 less than she should be making based on her years in the classroom.
“It’s so disappointing to know some of our elected officials seem to think we’re overpaid,” she said.
Gwen Lehman, who has taught at Stephen Decatur High School for the past 46 years, said she wanted to see salaries for the mid-career teachers restored to the appropriate level. She said that while all teacher salaries had been impacted in the beginning of the economic downturn, those of veteran teachers and new teachers had been restored in recent years. Salaries of teachers between the two ends of the spectrum have not.
“It’s the mid-career people we’re most concerned about,” Lehman said.
Though she is retiring this year, Lehman said she loved her time as a teacher in Worcester County.
“Worcester County has been good to me, as has Stephen Decatur,” she said. “What I wish for my younger colleagues and my much younger colleagues is that they have a similar experience to mine. I have no regrets. My fear is they will.”
She added that teaching was a tough job.
“Even when you love it, it wakes you up in the middle of the night,” she said. “Even when you love it, it breaks your heart. You see kids who have everything and kids who have nothing. Kids who are eager to learn and kids who hate the world. You spend your own money and effort to reach them all.”
Berlin resident Kevin Belcher said his wife was a teacher and he had watched her work for hours before and after school. In addition to working in the classroom, he said teachers volunteered for school dances, served as club advisors and coached sports.
“These guys work so hard,” he said.
Decatur teacher Dawn Russell Marriner said she figured she had lost $40,000 in salary steps and cost of living increases in recent years. She said that was money she would have spent in Worcester County.
She suggested the county consider increasing property taxes in Ocean City for non-local property owners. She said it was done in Myrtle Beach.
Jackie Ball, who lives in Ocean City, said she was a conservative but supported funding for education.
“When I hear taxes might go up, I shudder,” she said. “But I know I have a horse in this race. I’ve had three children in the school system. Education is so important I’m actually willing to pay some more taxes for it.”
Not all of the funding requests made Tuesday were for the Board of Education. Representatives from several non-profit organizations asked the commissioners to support their causes. Claudia Nagle, director of the homeless shelter Diakonia, asked the commissioners to fund the organization at the level it was funded last year — $42,000.
“It’s not only those dollars it’s dollars we leverage with other grant sources,” she said.
Lehman, who in addition to being a teacher is a board member of Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services (WYFCS), sought support for the Berlin agency. She said in 2014, the agency had provided direct services to more than 1,000 people. In addition to offering counseling and administering youth programs, WYFCS also connects individuals in need of assistance with the proper local agency.
“Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services is a resource hub within Worcester County,” Lehman said.
Jack Ferry spoke on behalf of the Worcester County Developmental Center.
“WCDC is the only brick and mortar facility in Worcester County that provides comprehensive services for adults with disabilities,” Ferry said. “Your support in the past has allowed us to grow the businesses we have, the employment we’re able to provide to our clients. … We hope you will continue to support us in the future to help our clients achieve their greatest level of social and economic independence.”
Snow Hill resident Tommy Tucker asked the commissioners not to forget the Worcester County Commission on Aging as they adjusted the budget. The commission operates four senior centers throughout the county and provides meals on wheels to more than 50 seniors a day. Tucker said the commission was only operating at 80 percent, as it was only open four days a week, and that the services it provided were vital.
“There are a number of people you won’t see here tonight because they don’t drive after dark,” he said. “They don’t have support groups, PTAs, auxiliaries or boosters or any other organization to speak on their behalf. But I’d invite you to go to any (senior) center in the county. I think you’ll find there is life after 50.”
The Worcester County Commissioners have budget work sessions scheduled May 12, 20 and 26. They plan to officially adopt the budget in early June.