SNOW HILL – In spite of recent protests from local educators, the Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday adopted a budget with no pay increases for teachers or any other county employees.
The $182 million budget does include a 6.5-cent property tax increase as well as a higher income tax rate —1.75 percent.
Commissioner Chip Bertino, who made the motion to adopt the budget, said that the process had been difficult, particularly for the county’s four newest commissioners, but that the final product did what needed to be done.
“Nothing can be gained by answering the unpleasant comments that have been made or by rehashing what has been written and televised about the commissioners’ work on this year’s budget,” Bertino said. “We need to move forward and we shall.”
The approved FY 2016 budget of $182,450,109 is more than $7 million less than the originally requested budget of $189.8 million but is still 2.5 percent higher than the FY 2015 budget. County leaders have spent the past month determining what cuts to make in the budget and deciding on a tax increase that would fund this year’s needs and maintain the county’s budget stabilization fund into the future.
The budget request from the Worcester County Board of Education, $82.7 million, would have enabled the school system to provide teachers with a step increase as well as a 2.5-percent cost-of-living adjustment. In the budget approved Tuesday, the school system’s allocation came to $79 million, or the Maintenance of Effort level required by law plus the increase in the health insurance costs for the board of education.
“While deserved, the commissioners were unable to include funds for a cost-of-living increase, step increment or longevity pay in salary accounts for county employees and the board of education …,” states a press release issued by county officials after Tuesday’s meeting. “This fiscally conservative budget maintains funding for valuable public services residents can count on, such as public safety, education, infrastructure and existing social service programs.”
School officials say the county grant will not provide the funding needed to support raises for teachers.
“We were hoping that commissioners would fund a pay increase to all county employees but they have not,” Superintendent of Schools Jerry Wilson said. “As a result, we are forced to decide if giving our employees a pay increase warrants internal reductions.”
He added that officials would be “seriously considering” the options because the school system’s employees deserved increases.
“For us, our people come first,” he said, “they are worth it.”
School system officials said internal reductions to provide money for raises would be difficult, since 90 percent of the operating budget goes toward salaries, benefits and bus contracts. Because of that, they say they’ll be forced to look at position reductions.
“Each position that we currently have supports a student’s education,” Wilson said. “In addition, if the school system must reduce employee positions to adequately compensate the workforce, then the school system is not on a sustainable path. Position reduction could only be a temporary practice — a painful and costly one at that.”
Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA), said she was disappointed with the budget adopted by the commissioners, particularly since teachers had reached out to their elected officials to share their thoughts on the budget. Because the budget does not reflect the pay increases the WCTA agreed upon earlier this year with the school system, Shockley-Lynch will go back to the board of education to renegotiate.
“We have every confidence we’ll go back to the board of education and they will work with us,” she said. “They will make an effort to do the right thing.”
Bob Rothermel, president of the school board, said he and his peers were determined to support school system employees. Like Shockley-Lynch, he said he was let down by the county decision.
“Not only are we disappointed,” he said, “but we believe our communities will be disappointed. At each public input meeting the majority of speakers said they would accept a tax increase to support an increase in pay for teachers and staff.”
Commissioners Joe Mitrecic and Bud Church voted against approving the budget. Both said they would have liked to see some sort of salary increase for employees.
Church, who said this was possibly the most difficult budget process he’d gone through in 12 years as a commissioner, said officials should have agreed to the mid-year salary increases staff proposed at one point during the budget process. He said the county employees at the low end of the salary scale were taking a “major hit” with increased taxes.
“I’m not sure that serves the best interest of our citizens,” he said.
Mitrecic made similar comments. He pointed out that the budget didn’t just mean higher taxes for county employees, it meant higher taxes with no pay increases.
“It wasn’t a level budget for our employees,” he said.
Mitrecic said the other aspect of the budget he didn’t support was the level of funding for the Town of Ocean City. Resort officials requested increased funding from the county in light of the duplication of services they say occurs in several areas, but the budget approved provides the town with the same $3 million it received last year. An extra $200,000 had been included in early drafts of the budget but the commissioners voted 4-3 to cut that in May.
Mitrecic said that $200,000 would have gone a long way to assuring resort officials that the county was aware of their concerns. He said it would have staved off a possible lawsuit from the town.
“I think it would be wrong for me to vote for a budget that does not include money for the Town of Ocean City toward their goal of tax equalization,” he said.
Along with the budget, the commissioners also made a decision regarding medical insurance benefits for new county employees. Employees hired after July 1 who work for the county for at least 15 years will be required to pay 20 percent of their medical insurance premium upon retirement. Their dependents who are covered will also pay 20 percent of the premium.
In the past, retirees have only had to pay 10 percent of the insurance premium.
Though the commissioners agreed that they wanted to increase the employee cost to 20 percent, there was disagreement regarding the rate retirees’ dependents should face. Mitrecic said he didn’t think the county should cover any of the cost for a retired employee’s dependent.
“The county can’t sustain this in the future,” he said. “The dependents enjoy a terrific insurance policy while their spouse is employed by the county.”
County Attorney Sonny Bloxom pointed out that employees had to work for the county for a minimum of 15 years before they were even eligible for the cost-sharing program. Commissioner Ted Elder said he wanted to see retirees’ dependents continue to benefit and suggested the same rate as the employees, 20 percent.
“I think part of the selling point of a county job isn’t the fantastic pay it’s the great benefits,” he said.
Commissioner Bud Church said the situation was a catch-22 for the county.
“As employers, we need to look out for the people who look out for us,” he said.
The commissioners voted 5-2, with Mitrecic and Jim Bunting opposed, to have retirees and their dependents pay 20 percent of insurance premiums. The county’s finance department is expected to study the costs associated with the change in the coming months so that an adjustment can be made in the future if necessary.