In recent years, the annual public hearing on Worcester County’s proposed budget has not been as spirited as it traditionally has been. In light of recent comments between the County Commissioners and school system officials, it will be interesting to see if the recent trend of lower turnout holds at this year’s budget public hearing, which will be held at the county government office building on Tuesday, May 2 at 7 p.m.
It’s no secret the Worcester County Commissioners are looking to cut funding to help balance the budget, which is currently facing a $11 million-plus deficit (of which about $4 million reportedly involves education spending). Whether the commissioners slice the education budget will be the question. Last week the commissioners asked for more details on the school system’s budget with the goal seemingly being to provide more scrutiny in the hopes of making some funding cuts to certain areas. School board officials approved having administrators work with county officials to provide more budget documents to answer the commissioners’ questions. Though little to no specific public comments have been made during budget work sessions, it seems clear the commissioners do not want to raise the property tax rate unless necessary.
As a follow-up to last week’s discourse over the budget, school system and county officials reportedly met this week over what documents are needed to provide clarity. While there has been a meeting of the minds on the issue, it’s clear the majority of the school board and the majority of the commissioners are not on the same page. Worcester County Board of Education President Todd Ferrante said this week, “We’ve been very transparent. We’ve had a very successful school system in Worcester County. We rank up there as far as the 24 other districts in a lot of categories in the top. I hope we’ll be able to continue to do that. What we’ve been doing has been working. If you look at the scores and where we rank, it’s indisputable.” For his part, County Commission President Chip Bertino believes the commissioners are being responsible when asking for more specifics on the budget. “When more than half of the county’s budget is going to the board of education we should see where that money is going,” Bertino said. “We’re dealing with a sensitive issue apparently, but we’ll get through this. I didn’t expect this to be so difficult, but we’ll get through this as we’ve gotten through other challenging issues in the past.”
Aside from the last few years, dozens of pro-education advocates would annually speak to the County Commissioners at the public hearing about the importance of fully funding the school system’s budget request. The messages typically mirrored each other, but there were numerous speakers hammering home the point of funding schools at a high level. I expect this year’s hearing to be a return those former days when public school supporters dominated the session.
During a quarterly update to the Berlin Mayor and Council this week, Berlin Fire Company President David Fitzgerald referenced ongoing concerns over the prospects of TidalHealth’s trauma center closing if the state does not step in. The concerns associated with this potential closure are numerous, including the fact most trauma cases would then require a flight or a nearly three-hour ambulance ride for care.
In published reports, TidalHealth has stated operational losses of $150 million over the last three years as patient volumes have surged along with operating costs. A $50 million request for immediate assistance through the Health Services Cost Review Commission resulted in approximately $9 million coming to the lower shore facility. An emergency rate relief application has since been filed. The real hope is the HSCRC will re-evaluate the funding formula, providing more of a permanent revenue stream.
During this year’s Maryland General Assembly session, some additional funding – about $9.5 million in new money – was approved for all state trauma centers. TidalHealth will only receive a share of those funds, however. Senator Mary Beth Carozza touched on this issue in her legislative review published this week. “Perhaps, the most important achievement this session affecting the entire Lower Shore and statewide is the Eastern Shore Delegation’s team effort to secure critical funding and legislation to support TidalHealth’s trauma center, the Eastern Shore’s only trauma program which serves patients from every Maryland jurisdiction. Back in the fall, months before the start of the January session, TidalHealth’s leadership informed the Delegation that the trauma center was in jeopardy and needed funding to continue operations after being denied their repeated requests for appropriate funding from the Health Services Cost Review Commission,” Carozza said. “Working together, we were able to secure an additional $9.5 million to assist Maryland trauma centers experiencing financial challenges, including TidalHealth which has been woefully underfunded by the State. In addition, I sponsored with Delegate Tom Hutchinson of Cambridge, and the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved Senate Bill 493 to study the adequacy of trauma funding across Maryland which is the long-term solution for ensuring fair funding for TidalHealth’s trauma center in the future.”