SNOW HILL – Rising costs, unfunded state mandates and the need for a fire and EMS funding solution are among the top issues facing Worcester County in 2022.
Challenges elected officials say they’re preparing for include the cost of the Kirwan Commission’s education mandates and the practicalities of outfitting police with body cameras. Other topics at the forefront are the need for a long-term funding solution for the county’s fire and EMS services as well as growing inflation. The Worcester County Commissioners, however, remain optimistic looking ahead.
“I think we have a great staff and some great minds on the dais,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said. “Together, we’re looking at different things.”
With inflation on the rise, the commissioners expect costs to be up throughout government. Commissioner Ted Elder is worried about the impact on the labor market.
“Our wages are going to have to come up,” he said.
Mitrecic said the county will continue its efforts to be frugal despite costs going up. He noted that the same increases residents see at places like the grocery store and gas stations will impact government operations.
“We’re going to be looking at every budget item line by line,” he said.
Mitrecic added, however, that the county did have a surplus from last year and was looking at ways to increase its revenue, particularly through legislation that will make sure the county receives fees associated with properties being rented through online platforms like Airbnb.
Property tax revenues are expected to rise in the coming year, and the county’s transfer tax revenues are doing well, according to Commissioner Chip Bertino. That doesn’t mean officials are not concerned about the variety of large projects looming on the horizon. He said county staff members were working to compile an outline of significant impending expenses.
“When we talk at the meetings, it’s very easy to talk on a specific issue as to how much this is going to cost or what we need to allocate,” he said. “The challenge though is when you put all those things together — which we rarely do except for budget time — it can be a shock.”
He said it was important for citizens as well to be aware of the county’s financial burdens.
“I think the taxpayers have a right to know and be told what it is we’re looking at because ultimately they’re paying for it…,” Bertino said. “It’s taxpayer funding.
Anticipated expenses the commissioners have discussed in recent months include educational costs associated with the Kirwan Commission mandates as well as the addition of body cameras to police officers. Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser met with the commissioners last month to review the increase in work her office will experience with the addition of body cameras to police officers .
“It’s storage of all this video, it is the manpower necessary to allocate and collate what we have, we’re going to have FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests I’m sure,” Bertino said. “We’re going to need a plan, we’re going to need people I suspect, and we’re going to need a place in which to store all this for a fairly lengthy period of time… There is a hope there may be some federal and or state grant funding that would be available to enable us to get the funds to pay for this.”
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said funding was his primary concern related to body cameras.
“Do we think the program is a good thing?” he said. “Of course we do, but it costs a lot of money. Money doesn’t grow on any trees here in Worcester County as far as I can tell.”
The commissioners are also eager to continue the county’s recent broadband efforts. While grant funding is expected to help, there could still be costs associated with bringing high speed internet to all parts of the county. Talkie Communications and Choptank Fiber recently connected customers in the Pocomoke area.
“We’re finally beginning to provide actual broadband connections to our rural citizens,” Nordstrom said. “That’s very encouraging but we still have a long way to go.”
Bertino said taxpayers should be able to expect access to broadband.
“It is infrastructure,” he said. “In the 21st century we need to ensure every location—every household, every business—in Worcester County has access to quality broadband.”
Another financial concern for the county is increasing fire and EMS costs. A committee made up of fire company representatives, county staff and some commissioners has been meeting to determine how best to address funding moving forward but a solution has not yet been identified.
“It’s a matter of crunching the numbers and making sure our departments throughout the county are funded in a way that makes them viable, sustainable and able to provide 24-hour service,” Nordstrom said. “We want to make sure every company has the proper funding they need.”
Though not necessarily 2022 costs, amid the issues on the immediate horizon the commissioners say they have to remain cognizant of the variety of large projects in the county’s capital improvement plan. The planning document includes projects like a new Buckingham Elementary School as well as a sports complex and a new public safety building.
“We have to find ways to increase revenue,” Mitrecic said. “I’m a firm believer that a sports complex is going to be a huge revenue generator for the county.”
According to Mitrecic, the county has identified two possible properties for a sports complex and is expected to enter into negotiations with landowners.