Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk – May 19, 2023

Thoughts From The Publisher’s Desk – May 19, 2023

As happens every year, the Worcester County Commissioners turned a deficit into a surplus. This year it was an approximately $11 million deficit that became a $400,000 surplus through a series of cuts and revenue increases. It happens every year, and it’s why exception has been taken to the word “unprecedented” being thrown around so much this budget cycle.

While it’s true supply chain issues and soaring inflation are more difficult than ever, the concept of the county’s requested expenditures exceeding projected revenues is not new. The budget was always going to be balanced. It was just about the process. What has made this year’s county budget process unique has been the strained relationship between the commissioners and the Worcester County Board of Education. A war of words has ensued between the two bodies publicly (and especially privately), and mediation may be needed to address these issues moving forward in future years. I think both sides may be guilty of using some scare tactics to prove their point, but in their defense emotions are running high and agitation seems to be surfacing amongst elected and appointed leaders.

After comments made last week during a budget meeting when the commissioners voted to fund the schools at the same per-pupil funding as last year – which is about $4.5 million less than the county school system requested – the school board this week set out to address “misinformation that’s out there,” according to Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer. The school board meeting then delved into refuting specific points, like the Disney logo in an opening school year event and take-home vehicles, raised by the commissioners in recent meetings. The journalist in me finds all this entertaining to be honest, but the resident and parent of a public school system student in me is concerned about the fractured relationship.

It has been widely speculated by school system proponents and others on the sidelines the call for transparency by the commissioners is simply a ruse for a plan all along to reduce the county’s spending on education. Commission President Chip Bertino said the call for transparency is real, saying, “It is not the purpose of this body to micromanage but it is our responsibility to see how taxpayer money is being used. There is no reason all of us in elected office, all functions of government, should not be open to the public and the taxpayers to see where that money’s being spent.”

Putting the politics and allegations aside, what’s clear is the county wants more details from the school system. This is a request that will not be going away during the current commissioners’ four-year terms. Some of the sharpest comments on the matter surprisingly came this week from the typically reserved Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young. He said, “What has been provided to us thus far only accounts for 4% of their budget, so hardly comprehensive. Further, we have been told that the amounts in each category are only estimates and no reflection of actual spending, so arbitrarily made up. We are confident our email request is clear and concise. They should consider it a Public Information Act request at this point.”

On the flip side, Board of Education President Todd Ferrante finds it irresponsible for the county to cut the school system’s budget by $4.5 million when the county now has a surplus. He said, “The county will have money. They could support everything we’ve asked for. We’d be happy to sit down with them and be happy to discuss whatever they’d like to discuss.” On the contrary, County Commissioner Eric Fiori, whose wife is an elementary school teacher, said, “The ball is in the court of the board of education. They have more than adequate funding to balance the budget. All of our hardworking teachers, support staff and bus drivers should be given the raises they were promised.” Tolbert says, “We don’t have money to do those increases that we negotiated and we agreed to. It’s not there.”

It’s a pet peeve of mine each spring for major road work to take place around here this time of year. Route 50 and Coastal Highway in Ocean City in years past have under construction during Cruisin week. It seemed this year the area was in the clear until yesterday. It’s just going to start a little later.

Beginning Monday, May 22, the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration announced a paving project for Route 611 between the Verrazano Bridge over the Sinepuxent Bay and Route 376 (Assateague Road) in Worcester County. The project is expected to be completed by the end of June, depending on the weather. The road work will take between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The press release with the announcement addressed the obvius, saying, “The State Highway Administration understands roadwork can be an inconvenience, but is necessary to maintain a safe and reliable transportation system. Drivers are asked to stay alert, stay focused, look for reduced speed limits as well as driving pattern changes and slowdown in construction zones.”

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.