Wicomico Holds Budget Hearing

SALISBURY – Discussions on funding challenges and federal relief funds highlighted a public hearing this week on Wicomico County’s proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2022.

On Monday, Acting County Executive John Psota held a public hearing on the fiscal year 2022 operating budget.

“This is the public’s opportunity to voice their opinions on what they feel are the funding needs of the county for fiscal year 2022,” he said. “These comments will be taken into consideration when finalizing the budget.”

Finance Director Pam Oland told community members this week budget challenges for the coming year include a potential $2.6 million loss in state disparity grant funding, salary negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police and adequate compensation for correctional officers, as well as the unknown impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on local income tax.

Other budget challenges, she added, include funding for three major capital projects – a new public safety building, an airport runway extension, and a renovation and expansion at Mardela Middle and High School.

Oland also highlighted departments’ expense requests for fiscal year 2022. The spending plan includes a $369,000 increase in maintenance of effort funding for the board of education, a $288,000 increase for Wor-Wic Community College and a $143,000 increase for the county’s capital lease program, among other things.

“We asked the departments to try to come to us with a flat budget request,” she said, “and like everyone else, they are experiencing increased costs.”

Oland said the proposed tax rate for fiscal year 2022 is 91.95 cents per $100 of assessed value, representing a 1.4% revenue increase.

“Based on the charter, we are only allowed to increase our tax rate by either 2% or the CPI-U as of the proceeding December …,” she said. “Due to COVID, there was limited inflation over the last 12 months, and that CPIU number is 1.4%, so we are only allowed to increase our revenue by 1.4% in fiscal 2022. The 2% would have allowed us to increase it by an additional $363,000, and that is revenue we will not be allowed to put in the tax rate for this fiscal year.”

Oland noted most of the county’s revenue comes from local property and income tax. In fiscal year 2020, a bulk of that money was earmarked for education, public safety and debt service.

In the coming fiscal year, proposed county contributions to the Wicomico County Board of Education total $57.1 million, which includes $369,000 in maintenance of effort funding. But Oland noted that contribution could increase.

“There’s still some uncertainty as to whether or not that is the right maintenance of effort,” Oland said. “So there is discussion that unfortunately that number is low and we would have to increase it up to another $800,000.”

Officials noted the county received more than $20 million in recovery funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. However, the county is prohibited from using the money to fund pensions or cut the tax rate.

“It is important to note that the American Rescue Plan Act provides funding to Wicomico County in the amount of $20,094,328,” Psota said. “Split equally in two tranches, one year apart, the recovery funds are to be used as replacement revenue lost due to COVID-19, and we are awaiting interpretation and guidance from the federal government on its use.”

During Monday’s public hearing, resident Darren Lombardo urged county officials to consider the needs of the people when deciding how to use the federal funding.

“When we accept funds, we need to make sure we are not being handcuffed as a society, as a county, in receiving those funds,” he added.

Eileen Johnson, representing the advocacy group Push4Education, urged county officials to prioritize its investment in students.

“As a county we still invest less per pupil than we did over 12 years ago, and our state’s poorest county, Somerset, invests far more per pupil than we do,” she said. “We are woefully behind to address that, and we need more revenue.”

She also asked the county to support infrastructure projects that benefit the education system. She advocated for broadband improvements and a renovation and addition at Mardela Middle and High.

“We are destined to have world-class schools in our county,” she said, “and we need to recognize that as a real possibility.”

Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin thanked county leaders this week for their continued support. She noted the school system’s spending plan was a “bare-bones, maintenance of effort budget.”

“We are especially thankful to our employee groups – our teachers, our classified employees and administrators – who stepped up to the plate, understanding the impact both financially and otherwise that this past year has had on our community, and through negotiations agreed to only a step on the salary schedule and no cost-of-living increase at all in salaries for the coming year,” she said. “It’s only through this successful collaboration and negligible increase in health care and the hard work and dedication of budget managers to realign existing funding to meet priorities for the coming year that we have been able to balance a maintenance of effort budget for FY2022.”

The acting county executive is expected to submit his proposed expense budget to the Wicomico County Council by April 20. The legislative branch will hold a public hearing in May, followed by a vote to adopt the budget in June.

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.