County budget includes tax hike

 

County residents had their first chance this week to publicly voice their thoughts on the fiscal 2015 Wicomico spending plan and – as usual – their concerns centered on schools spending.

County Executive Rick Pollitt has submitted a $129.4 million budget request that raises county property taxes roughly 4 cents, from the current .9086 cents per $100 of assessed value to .9516 cents.

Pollitt has based his property tax hike on the need to maintain current services in the face of a decline in the real property assessable base. According to county projections, the tax base has decreased 2.5 percent, from $5.8 billion this fiscal year to $5.6 billion in fiscal 2015, which begins July 1.

For Wicomico to generate the same amount of revenue this year as last year — also called the constant yield calculation — the tax rate would need to increase .0289 cents, from .9086 cents to

.9375 cents.

The tax increase falls within the limits imposed by the still debated Property Tax Revenue Cap implemented more than a decade ago.

According to Pollitt’s budget submission, the higher tax rate will produce $967,130

more revenue from real property.

The rate hike will not, however, fund all of the county agencies’ funding requests. If approved next month by the legislative County Council, the county will dip into reserves to spend about $7 million more than it receives in tax revenues, and state and federal appropriations.

The county’s reserve fund has a balance of about $39 million. About $4 million is targeted at infrastructure repairs, including county roads-maintenance initiatives.

Under Pollitt’s plan, the county property tax bill would be $951 on a home with an assessable value is $100,000.

While in previous years, public safety and roads spending has competed with schools for attention, this year the county library system and economic development received mention.

Maida Finch, a Salisbury University professor and member of the county library board, asked that the council not cut Pollitt’s library funding request.

Pollitt would increase the county’s contribution by $100,602. This amount includes a 1.5 percent increase for general cost of operations and $44,175 to enable the opening of the library on Sunday during the school year.

Brad Gillis, a local Realtor and former president of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, asked the council to approve a spending proposal to add $250,000 in new funding to boost the Salisbury-Wicomico County Economic Development organization, with the goal of growing and diversifying the regional economic base.

“Please, please continue to invest in entrepreneurship and new ideas,” Gillis said. “There is innovation and entrepreneurship happening all around us every day.”

He cited local enthusiasm witnessed with the recent casting call at Salisbury University for the ABC-TV show “Shark Tank,” where some 200 entrepreneurs auditioned.

Gillis said it is within elected officials’ and business leaders abilities to grow the local business economy.

“If we as a community get behind the idea that we can do this, we will,” he said.

As in years past, education spending was the most popular discussion topic. Also, as in years past, several county residents affiliated with the Board of Education rose to encourage the County Council to properly fund education.

Pollitt’s budget proposal is about $2.2 million less than the school board requested, but exceeds the state’s Maintenance of Effort formula number by about $88,000.

Nearly 44 percent of all county spending — or about $37.79 million — would go to education.

Schools Superintendent John Frederickson  told the council that spending on technology, security and educational classroom systems is needed.

“We have to have the dollars,” he said. “That’s the lifeblood for the betterment of our children.”

Mat Tilghman, first vice-chairman of the Greater Salisbury Committee, rose to support of the tax increase, saying it was crucial that the county maintain both its financial strength and bond rating.

He also took a jab at the county’s revenue cap, which was implemented during a time of economic growth.

“The revenue cap swings both ways,” said Tilghman. “You cannot just take the rewards when the pendulum swings up. You have to pay up when the pendulum swings the other way.”

The hearing at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center attracted about 65 people. It was recorded for rebroadcast on PAC 14.

Contact Greg Bassett at GBassett@newszap.com.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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