SNOW HILL – A two-cent property tax increase proposed by county staff drew immediate criticism from a pair of Worcester County Commissioners this week.
At the start of a budget work session Tuesday, Commissioner Jim Bunting expressed concern about the budget presented by Worcester County staff — which includes a proposed two-cent property tax increase — and asked that the commissioners plan to approve the Worcester County Board of Education’s budget separately from the county’s overall budget.
“I just want to say I was very surprised when I got the work session book,” Bunting said. “There’s things in there I didn’t expect to see. I’m very concerned about it. At the same time I’m very pleased with what the board of education has done with their budget. Not saying that there wont be some changes in it possibly, one way or the other, but at this time, I don’t want to have to vote against the board of education because of what’s in this if it doesn’t change any.”
After the commissioners approved his motion to vote on the two budgets separately, Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins outlined the county’s $202 million budget suggested by the county’s financial team. He said the team had aimed to create a balanced budget as the county faced a $6.8 shortfall in fiscal year 2020.
“We made some minor adjustments. It’s a moving target,” Higgins said. “As people retired and put in their resignation we try to modify that which results in certain changes within the salary category. We try to give you the best number we can.”
He said the team’s priorities included retaining staff, increasing the county’s OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) appropriation and addressing aging capital equipment needs.
He said he’d taken the initiative to include a two-cent property tax increase in the budget. He explained that a major challenge for the county would be addressing the $2 million cost of operating the county’s homeowner convenience centers and recycling program.
“Based on the past, those kind of large hurdles were best addressed by increases in property tax,” Higgins said. “To remind the public, the press, these are just the financial team, my, suggestions. They’re not to hold anything in stone.”
He added that the county could also consider tweaking its income tax rate, which is the lowest in the state, to generate revenue as well.
When asked who was on the financial team, Higgins said it included himself, Finance Officer Phil Thompson and Budget Officer Kathy Whited.
“I want to thank you for the work that was done in preparing this but I would like to state at the outset I think that putting out there a tax increase without having consulted with the commissioners was inappropriate,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said.
He said the commissioners hadn’t yet discussed a possible increase and were only just beginning budget deliberations Tuesday.
“It was just sprung on us on Friday whenever we received our packets,” he said. “To say that it’s justified at this point, that’s the process that we’re going through. That’s a decision for the commissioners not for staff.”
He added that the budget the commissioners were looking at Tuesday didn’t even include any cuts from what department heads initially submitted.
“To automatically go to a tax increase to cover the shortfall, I think was misplaced …,” Bertino said. “I don’t consider the tax increase something that should be discussed until we’ve had an opportunity to cut from the budget.”
The commissioners are expected to resume budget discussions next Tuesday.