Wicomico Council Cautious In Proposed Budget Review

SALISBURY – County leaders this week began the process of reviewing department budgets and finding ways to increase reserves in fiscal year 2021 as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

On Monday, the Wicomico County Council held a work session with several department heads to review County Executive Bob Culver’s proposed budget of $153,250,029 for fiscal year 2021.

“I know the budget was written before COVID-19 came along, so it really doesn’t reflect where we are headed,” Councilman Joe Holloway said. “We don’t really know where we are headed I guess.”

When asked his thoughts on how the county should alter the budget to account for the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg recommended transferring any departmental cuts to the county’s contingency reserve account.

“I don’t think there’s any question the fiscal and economic environment in the country, in the state, in the county is going to be – for lack of a better word – fluid,” he said. “I think we are going to get some surprises along the way. What I would suggest is any reductions you anticipate or would like to make in departmental budgets, I would encourage you to send those cuts to contingency … so that as issues arise during the upcoming fiscal year we have an available bank account if you will that we can go to to fund things that are necessary.”

With that suggestion in mind, council members this week began the budget work session with school system leaders.

The Wicomico County Board of Education budget includes $47.68 million in county appropriations for the coming fiscal year. Officials noted the board did not request additional funds above maintenance of effort. However, the budget does include one-time, nonrecurring requests related to technology, school safety and classroom furniture.

“Mr. Culver did not include those in his budget,” Superintendent Donna Hanlin said, “but we would ask the council to reconsider funding those items that don’t impact maintenance of effort.”

The legislative body also met with Strausburg this week to discuss a 36% increase in the executive office budget. The increase includes an additional $128,000 for a new chief financial officer position.

“It’s a large increase this year overall,” Councilman John Cannon said.

Drawing on his experience in the private sector, Strausburg said the county could benefit from a separate budget management office, particularly as the county budget grows. He said the idea was put forward by Culver in recent years.

“It’s my experience over the years that if you have an effective office of budget management they actually paid for themselves,” he said.

When asked where Culver stood on a new Pittsville library branch, Strausburg said the executive was not fully prepared to move forward at this time.

“He hasn’t closed the door on it, but we have to move forward in a practical manner and be cautious with capital projects moving forward,” he said.

The council on Tuesday also reviewed the budget for the Salisbury Regional Airport, which recently received $18 million in grant funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Officials said the grant funding would be used to cover operating, maintenance and capital costs at the facility for the next four years.

“My understanding is the operations and maintenance expenses are reimbursable,” Assistant Airport Manager Tony Rudy said. “We would have to submit those requests to the FAA to get reimbursed … For the development projects, we don’t have guidance yet as to how that’s going to be funded.”

Representatives with the Wicomico County State’s Attorney’s Office also came before the council this week seeking financial support for a new prosecution integrity unit. Although the council this year approved three new positions within the department to provide additional support for two ongoing investigations, State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes said funding for those positions were removed from the executive’s budget.

“I’d like to see us put the recommendation forward to the county executive that he go ahead and fund this,” Councilman Joe Holloway said.

County leaders this week also discussed a funding increase to volunteer fire and ambulance services. Officials attributed a $302,089 increase to volunteer fire and an $828,345 increase to volunteer ambulance to equipment costs and paramedic salaries.

“What we do costs a significant amount of money every year, and we appreciate the support we’ve gotten from you …,” Sharptown Fire Department Chief Billy White said. “I’ve been involved with the fire service for over 30 years now and have seen the increases and it’s continually going up.”

Powellville Volunteer Fire Company’s John Hilton noted that the cost of replacing equipment continues to increase.

“In Powellville we had to purchase a new breathing apparatus this year,” he said. “Just to replace, not increase the amount of units we have, cost us $189,000 and they are only good for 15 to 20 years.”

Officials added that paramedic salaries continue to be a challenge for local fire companies.

“Several of our paramedics not only work in Sharptown or Wicomico County but also work across the bridge and in other counties as well,” White said. “We are competing trying to maintain and keep those folks here with us and demand for paramedics is a lot higher than what supply is going to be.”

Adding to the financial pressure, he said, was the fire companies’ inability to raise funds during the COVID-19 pandemic. By the fall, he projects the local fire companies will lose more than $1 million in fundraising revenue as in-person events are canceled.

“There’s also been a significant decrease in EMS calls and a decrease in billing because of that …,” he said. “It’s off significantly across the county.”

The council this week also discussed increases to the information technology, purchasing and community programs departments. A budget recap session will be held virtually on Thursday, May 21, at 6 p.m.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.