Culver keeps taxes flat in Wicomico budget plan

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Pay raises for teachers and replacing West Salisbury Elementary School were among requests made at the county’s public hearing for the FY2016 budget last week.

After measuring the public input, the budget was formally given to the County Council on Wednesday, with April 15 being the deadline.

County Executive Bob Culver and County Administrator Wayne Strausburg gave an overview of the proposed budget. They declined to release the budget  amount until this week, when the document was expected to go to the council for review.

Among speakers was Gary Hammer, a board of education employee representing the county’s education association.

He said there are school employees, including instructional assistants, earning only $12,000 for full-time employment. He called for raises for educators since the starting salary in Wicomico is 17th in the state and because there haven’t been salary increases in some time.

Several speakers were teachers and administrators, who worried about  illiteracy, the drop-out rate, poor readers struggling to grow into successful adults and families and teachers leaving the area for better schools.

They asked Culver to put struggling students first and for additional funding for small-group instruction, reading teachers and instructors to help reluctant learners. Their remarks were met with applause.

The Rev. Lewis Watson, representing The Watchmen, asked for a county commitment to replace the aging West Salisbury  Elementary School, saying it’s difficult for children to learn in closets, as some do, and in heat so stifling those with asthma can’t attend.

Strausburg said county officials have met twice with the board of education “about how to move the project forward” and said discussions will continue.

“We certainly understand the need and we’re trying to find a way to meet that need and to afford that need,” he said.

Watson asked if the plan is to make repairs, or build a new school.

Culver said the school board asked for $2.1 million for the school. “I heard that request and I pulled that bond out,” he said.

“Still, that does not provide for our children the kind of environment for educating them properly,” Watson said.

“To see children learning in a closet, with no ventilation, no windows, is very discouraging … I would think our children would be a priority, on top of the list. We are asking you to find a way to fund that school,” Watson said to hearty applause.

If money can be spent for other new schools in the county, it can be found for West Salisbury Elementary, he said, to more applause.

Culver said he understood because his children went there, but Lewis said he did, too, in 1970, when it was fairly new, but it’s much worse now.

“Children ought to be excited, they ought to be enthused  when they go to school. You can’t look forward to going to a cold school when it’s cold and going to  a hot school when it’s hot. I don’t think it’s right. We need to put this back on the docket and we need to find a way,” he said.

Culver said he needs “a set plan” concerning the school, including the enrollment and what schools in the county could close or be consolidated.

Watson said he understood there’s a detailed process.

“All we want to hear from you and the council is you are recommitting to making this a priority and putting this back on the docket. We want to hear this is a priority,” Watson said.

Culver said since he took the $2.1 million off the bond bill, it has been a priority.

“Let me tell you what I’m doing for schools,” he said, explaining Mardela High School never had a track and he was the first person to see that it gets one.

“I’m going to make sure every school is brought up to standards. Yes, West Salisbury is a priority just as much as Mardela is a priority. They are all priorities. Am I going to say there is one that means more to me than the other just so you’ll be quiet? No, I’m not going to do that,” Culver said.”

“Well, we’re not going to be quiet,” Watson told Culver. “While you can’t make us a commitment, we can make you one — we’re going to keep showing up. We will keep worrying you.”

“That doesn’t bother me,” Culver said.

“I think you need to hear us. And the county council. You need to revisit this,” he said, adding The Watchmen are gathering signatures to petition for a new school.

Before hearing public comments, Culver said he took a “very conservative” approach to the budget, and proposed no new taxes or fees.

He asked county department heads to reduce costs by 2.5 percent, and was pleased they exceeded that request, making reductions, on average, of 6 percent.

Strausburg said  the conservative approach is due to “the very fragile state and recovery of the state and pressure on houses and businesses.”

Wicomico’s property tax rate is .9516 percent, he said.

The personal property tax can be levied at no more than 2.5 times of property tax rate, but county leaders will leave it at $2.17, same as last year. He said forecasted income tax revenue will be $42 million, less than last year, because the county will lose some well-paying jobs, including those due to Labinal closing.

On the income tax side, 2015 will probably be flat, Strausburg said. He said the forecast is about $42 million in 2016 in income tax revenue.

In FY2015, the state should have remitted $13.7 million to the county, but the county will receive less than half of that, he said. From FY2008 to FY2015, state actions have cost Wicomico $78.5 million, he said.

Concerning  highway user revenue, he said Wicomico will get 10 percent of what was due. The fund is derived from car registrations, which is supposed to go back to counties to maintain roads. Strausburg said the state’s actions are costing Wicomico about $7 million per year. The county  takes about $5 million out of the general fund to keep the roads in good repair, he said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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