SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners approved a $190 million budget for the coming fiscal year this week.
The commissioners voted 6-1, with Commissioner Joe Mitrecic opposed, to approve the budget after lengthy discussion regarding the county’s practice of providing grants to certain nonprofits.
“This budget has been very hard…,” Commissioner Diana Purnell said. “We’ve done the best that we can do. Everybody’s not going to be happy.”
County officials cut $21.5 million to balance the budget, which was originally proposed at $211.6 million. The budget approved Tuesday maintains tax levels at their current rates — 83.5 cents per $100 of assessed value for real property taxes and 1.75 percent for local income tax.
As the commissioners prepared to vote on the budget, Mitrecic was the first to raise concerns with the document. He said he didn’t agree with the county’s treatment of nonprofit grant requests. He said officials simply picked and chose which nonprofits to fund, with no set formula.
“I think we should have funded the requests this year and advised them that the process for future allocations could and would be very different,” Mitrecic said.
He said the commissioners always talked about children and their importance to the community. He said by cutting funds to the Art League of Ocean City, Furnacetown, the Delmarva Discovery Center and Marva Theater, the commissioners were cutting educational opportunities for local kids.
“We not only cut the funding to these nonprofits we further insulted the hardworking volunteers of these groups by calling them feral cats,” he said. “Talk about adding insult to injury.”
Mitrecic said his other objection to the proposed budget was the fact that Ocean City did not get what it asked for. He said the $100,000 in additional tourism funding the resort requested had not been granted, in spite of the fact that an additional $300,000 was projected to come to the county through room tax this year.
“That is not coming from Stockton or Snow Hill or Pocomoke,” Mitrecic said. “It’s directly attributed to the new development along the Route 50 corridor.”
He said that new development piggybacked on Ocean City’s tourism market.
“I believe any of us would jump at the chance to take a $100,000 investment and get three times that in return,” he said. “My fellow commissioners couldn’t wait to say no. Now Ocean City will probably look into getting a separate zip code and market that in the future.”
Mitrecic also criticized the fact that the commissioners voted not to help pay for the improvements designed to increase safety on the Boardwalk by preventing unauthorized vehicle access.
“I guess my colleagues know Ocean City is going to do the right thing whether we help fund it or not, that’s why it was so quickly voted down,” he said.
Mitrecic pointed out that Ocean Pines received funding for public safety and went on to suggest that Ocean Pines be given the opportunity to participate in the proposed Inlet study, as it was home to marinas and its residents traveled local waterways.
Mitrecic said that if the county passed the budget and Ocean City won its lawsuit against the county regarding the tax differential, he feared it would be the last straw.
“I’m afraid they will not come for a piece of the over $7 million but all of it,” he said. “You all will have to explain to your constituents why their tax bill is going up four, five, six cents. Ladies and gentlemen you cannot blame Ocean City this time, you will have no one to blame but yourselves.”
While no one else brought up the issue of Ocean City funding, several commissioners addressed nonprofit grants. Commissioner Bud Church said he’d learned that the director of the Delmarva Discovery Center cut her salary by 50 percent.
“Personally I think that’s a travesty,” he said.
Church said that if some of the nonprofits were to fold, the county would likely be tasked with taking on the cost of the services they offered.
“I’m going to vote for this budget,” he said. “I’m not happy about it.”
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw said he would have liked to provide grants to all of the nonprofits that had submitted requests but that there simply wasn’t funding to do so.
“This was not an easy budget to prepare,” he said. “I think it’s given all of us a lot of heartburn….We did try to do our best.”
Purnell echoed his comments and said she’d been sorry to see the Food Bank flat-funded yet again, when it did so much good in the community. She said she supported the nonprofits but that the commissioners had done the best they could with the money they had.
“When you’re spending taxpayer money we need to be accountable,” she said.
She applauded county staff for their efforts in balancing the budget.
“I get very upset when we disparage our staff,” she said.
Commissioner Ted Elder said he’d been disparaged by a fellow commissioner because he’d made a statement about stray cats. Elder said he himself had struggled to pay bills when he was young, working for minimum wage. He said he was thinking of people in that situation now when he voted to spend, or not spend, taxpayer money. He said the Art League of Ocean City had requested $20,000 for a period of five years. The county provided funding last year even though that five years was up.
“When does the time run out?” Elder said. “Does it ever stop? That’s where the comparison with the cats came in. once you get your foot in the door and get a certain amount every year that keeps coming and coming where do we stop? Where do we draw the line?”
He said he supported nonprofits as an individual but was not willing to give away taxpayer money.
“Our hands are in their pockets,” he said.