Budget time is looming for local governments and there seems to be a lot to be concerned about in Snow Hill for Worcester County. Along with the ongoing West Ocean City emergency services issue, the county learned this week potential legislation in Annapolis could hit the budget hard.
House Bill 677 would stop the practice of counties contracting with the federal government – namely the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency — to house immigration detainees while court matters proceed. This partnership resulted in big bucks for Worcester County, which annually gets about $5 million for housing detainees.
The bill reads, “Given implications on foreign relations, immigration enforcement and detention are inappropriate exercises of a state’s police powers,” the bill reads. “Issues of liability, accountability, and cost warrant a prohibition on the ownership, operation or management of detention facilities by private contractors, as well as a phasing out of the involvement of state and local officials in civil immigration detention to the fullest extent permitted under state law.”
The bill seems to reference issues that arise when injuries or worse occur in custody. Recent history tells us Worcester County understands this well. For instance, a Nigerian detainee, who entered the country lawfully in December 2017 on a non-immigrant visa but failed to comply with admission terms, died in the Snow Hill jail last December. He was being held while removal proceedings took place before federal immigration courts.
Similar legislation failed last year, but this year’s bill still has the county concerned, resulting in local officials planning to send a letter of opposition to state legislators. As of this week, the county jail was holding 119 ICE detainees at a rate of $87 per inmate per day.
““That would be a big hit to the budget,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said. “Worcester County needs to protect its revenue source.”
Berlin property owners will want to be aware of discussions at Town Hall in the coming weeks.
Town officials have already made it clear another property tax increase will be coming this year following last year’s 18% increase, from 68 cents per $100 of assessed property to 80 cents. During talks last year, another property tax increase this year in the range of six to 10 cents was discussed informally to ensure the town has adequate reserves in the case of an emergency. It’s too early at this point to say if that will pan out once the final budget is signed.
What does appear certain is the town’s stormwater fees for residential and commercial properties will be heading up this year. Last year increases to the town’s sewer (25%) and water (5%) fees were passed, but stormwater was left out of the increase party. A financial report presented to the town council last week confirms 2020 will be the stormwater fee’s turn to be increased.
Finance Director Natalie Saleh told the council, “the service charges, which is the stormwater residential and commercial (fees), it’s barely enough to cover the personnel and the day-to-day operating costs.” After hearing her report, Mayor Gee Williams said, “It’s something we’re going to have to look at.”
The mayor then announced the proposed tax rate for the coming fiscal year would be announced March 9, but the town will talk finances at next week’s work session on Feb. 10.
Gov. Larry Hogan touched on a number of topics during his State of the State address this week, but one I kept waiting for him to discuss was his “Universal School Start Act of 2020.” The legislation reverses what the Maryland General Assembly did last year in striking down Hogan’s 2016 Executive Order mandating all public schools ring their first school bell after Labor Day. The legislature’s action has resulted in many school systems in the state planning to return before Labor Day next August, while some will continue to start after Labor Day this year.
“The Universal School Start Act will repeal the legislature’s 2019 misguided bill and return our state to what the citizens actually want and have been demanding for years: the return of the school start to after Labor Day,” the governor said last week. “We have taken a lot of actions over the past five years, but I can’t think of a single one that has more widespread, enthusiastic support across the state,” said Governor Hogan. “But after two years of it working very well, and after the 2018 election was completed, last year in 2019 special interests snuck a bill in and legislators reversed himself and ignored the people again by reversing this commonsense action with a misguided piece of legislation, which has the potential to cause mass confusion this fall and in future years with a potential for 24 different start dates spread over several weeks.”
Though I agree with the governor, the bill will almost certainly be rejected by the legislature this year.