It’s clear not everyone is going to get what they want with the Worcester County budget process. It’s also evident the county school’s system budget request of $106 million from the county will not likely be met this year. This year’s request is $4.8 million than last year’s amount. It has been estimated the county is facing an $11 million deficit between revenues and expenditures with about $3 million of the gap a result of an increased allocation from the Worcester County Board of Education.
At this week’s budget public hearing, most of the speakers weighed in on education. Comments about transparency and accountability were heard. Commissioner Caryn Abbott asked for a forensic audit of the school system’s spending from the last five years. Abbott said, “I propose a forensic audit of the last 5 years by an independent agency and let true transparency begin there and not go back to the days of a skin and bones budget that lacks any real transparency or accountability to the people asked to fund our schools, the county taxpayer.” Board of Education President Todd Ferrante said the school system undergoes 17 audits a year and there’s no reason for a forensic audit. He said the school system is working to provide the transparency and details the county is seeking. “We are working to be as transparent as possible,” he said. “The way we have things itemized and lined up is not how they want them. We’re providing them with the information they requested.” On the forensic audit request, this was a bold call and one not necessary because the school system is heavily audited already.
Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young did not endorse the forensic audit request but said 53% of the county’s annual budget is directed to education. He said the county wants to address, “a lot of unanswered questions and it would be really helpful to see a five-year trend of line item accounts,” referring to aspects like the school system’s fleet and take-home car policy. He said, “Over 50% of our budget goes to the board of education. Over the last few years, our departments have made cuts and the board of education’s requests have been fully funded. The recent budget request is simply getting additional scrutiny. The board of education budget as originally submitted lacks significant detail compared to any other outside entity we would fund.”
I continue to think scrutiny and transparency is welcomed across all departments within the county. What will be interesting to see is whether the commissioners take the budget carving tool to the Sheriff’s Office request as well. The Sheriff’s Office is seeking $1.2 million more than the current year’s spending plan. While most of it is related to personnel costs connected to recruitment and retaining, there’s also a $324,000 request for an armored rescue vehicle. This would seem prime for a cut in what is being called a difficult budget year.
How the commissioners balance that sort of high public safety request with the school system’s hopes will be interesting to observe. Next week’s work session is the time when the commissioners typically roll through the budget and slash expenses. It will be interesting to see what makes the cut and what does not. Throughout the budget process, there has not been any talk of a property tax increase. Therefore, I would expect many cuts to expenditures next week.
Some moments of reflection this week on the passing of three local citizens with different careers and passions:
- Doug Cymek: I will remember Cymek as an eight-year councilman in Ocean City, but mostly as an ardent supporter of public safety throughout his life and as a dedicated family man. I remember a few deep conversations I had with him after the unexpected death of his son in 2013. The loss was tremendous for the entire Cymek family. Doug was a gentleman who was proud to serve Ocean City and enjoyed his years on the police commission specifically.
- Howard Gerken: A former public school teacher and principal in Sussex County, Howard and his family founded River Soccer Club in southern Delaware. He loved the game of soccer and the club he adored has provided a tremendous foundation for local high school soccer programs. Howard and his wife, Sandie, began the TOPSoccer program at River Soccer Club that’s special to my family. In fact, their adult grandson Josh, who has Down’s Syndrome, continues to volunteer on Saturdays in the spring, winter and fall. Howard’s health has kept him away from the club he built in recent years, but he can rest easy knowing his impact will continue to be felt for years to come. The club’s Facebook page put it best, “Howard will be tremendously missed by all those who had the honor of knowing him and those who are benefiting from his life work.”
- Joe Jacinto: The long-time local saxophone player passed this week after a battle with metastatic colorectal cancer. A video from a hospital room of Joe lying down and singing for his doctor with a friend playing the guitar went viral this week as news of his passing spread. The community rallied for Joe at a well-attended fundraising event last winter. The last time I saw Joe Smooth was a few years ago at Barn 34 when I was having breakfast. He was talking with the owners about booking a few gigs at the establishment. He was a working musician looking to fill out his summer calendar. He respected by many for his talent and kind ways.