Bob Culver: Wicomico spending is in control

Those who like to say that Wicomico County spending is out of control or has accelerated at an alarming rate just aren’t keeping their eyes on the ball.

Rather than looking at county budgets and making wild conclusions, it’s more appropriate to analyze actual spending.

Let’s look back and review what happened, and what has been happening.

In 2008, as the Great Recession began to affect us, the county’s annual General Fund spending was $126.1 million.

Leap forward nine years and consider the current circumstances: The unaudited financial results for Fiscal Year 2017 show Wicomico County General Fund spending of $133.3 million.

The math is so easy it can be done without a calculator — the increase over the base year (nearly a decade ago) is just $7.2 million.

Many of us have forgotten what the Maryland government did during the Great Recession to save its own coffers.

The state had a long record of sharing gas tax revenues with its counties. Desperate to protect their own budgets, state leaders through the recession years cut Highway User Revenue to just 10 percent of its historic levels.

The local effects were monumental. The county’s roads program, which had been maintained under an Enterprise Account — which means they were self-supporting without local tax dollars — had to be financed from the County’s General Fund.

This began in 2009, and as the Roads Department accumulated fund balance diminished, more and more general fund appropriations were needed. The eventual impact (over which Wicomico County had no control) was an expenditure from the general fund of $7.7 million in fiscal 2015. This was the reasonably adequate level needed to sustain our roads.

If one works backward — and again the math is relatively easy — adding that $7.7 million appropriation to our 2008 spending would pit spending that year at $133.8 million, or $500,000 more than 2017 actual spending.

Another hard fact is that none of these aforementioned numbers takes inflation into account, and inflation must obviously be considered.

Contrary to what one might hear, when including the annual and persistent increases in the prices of everything in the calculations, county spending has actually dropped over time.

The Consumer Price Index calculated inflation in the nine-year span between September 2008 and September 2017 at 12.8 percent over the nine years (just over 1.4 percent on average per year).

Therefore, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the 2008 spending — including the Roads Department — would be $150.9 million in today’s dollars.

Yes, that’s $17.6 million higher than our actual 2017 spending.

One lesson that we learned during the Great Recession was the importance of maintaining a fund balance for when the crisis times hit.

My predecessor correctly tapped into that savings account and kept our county functioning. One of my proudest accomplishments in my three years as County Executive is that we have fully restored that fund balance — today, in fact it one of the most robust among all of the counties in the state.

Finally, one must also recognize that our fund balance has also not only been restored but has risen to one of the most robust in the state of Maryland.

Since 2012, $13.5 million has been saved, raising our unassigned fund balance to $39.9 million.

I would suggest that these results speak for themselves and demonstrate very responsible fiscal management.

Bob Culver is County Executive for Wicomico County.

 

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