Culver presents conservative budget for Wicomico

Uncertain where the economy is headed and what the fiscal effects of the coronavirus epidemic will be, Wicomico County’s executive leadership team has drafted a straight-forward spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in July.

The budget, presented in a webcast held from the Government Office Building on Friday, calls for $153.25 million in spending, against expected revenues of $145.25 million. Rather than filling the budget gap by raising taxes, county officials would rely on fees generated by enterprise funds — such as tourism and solid waste — and take $4 million from its reserves fund to secure a balanced spending plan.

The worldwide pandemic is likely to have severe effects on next year’s revenues, as the unemployment rate is expected to rise and revenues from the state income taxes — or “piggyback taxes” — are expected to plummet. Those numbers won’t come into focus, however until late fall.

“We can anticipate what we know,” said County Executive Bob Culver, “but we’re scared to death by what we don’t know.”

Last year’s budget totaled $148.54 million in operational spending.

Under the County Charter, the County Council has the power to cut the budget and adjust spending in certain areas, but has now power to increase spending.

Under the formulas imposed by the county’s Revenue Cap, the county’s property tax rate would drop by only a miniscule amount, from the current 0.9346 cents per every $100 of assessed value to 0.9285 cents.The permitted revenue increase under the cap is  $1.17 million.

Real estate property assessments are up 2.65 percent, which adds about $1 million to county revenues.

County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg said the effects of unemployment and the recently declining stock market will undoubtedly have an impact.

“Our income will be down, our investments will be down — there will be a definite flattening of revenue,” he said.

Excluding capital spending, the Board of Education would be the largest recipient of dollars, with $57.69 million going toward education. The county’s contribution to public schools would rise by $607,537 to meet state Maintenance of Effort demands.

Public Safety, which includes the Sheriff’s Office, courts and detention center, would receive $55.3 million in total funding.

County employees would receive 5 percent wage hikes to address state minimum wage increases. Health care insurance costs will cost the county 16.5 percent more than last year.

When it comes to capital spending  for big-ticket projects, both Culver and Strausburg promised that current projects will be funded and completed.

“Capital spending is being closely reviewed,” said Strausburg, “but current projects will proceed.”

The big item on that list is the reconstruction of Beaver Run Elementary School in east Salisbury.

Parents and school officials have been pushing hard for a new school in Mardela Springs, and had been hoping to see it included in the capital plan.

Without naming the school project directly, Culver and Strausburg left the door slightly open.

“We will take a close look at any of the projects that have not been started and re-look (in) late summer,” Strauburg said.

Culver also said the county will impose a hiring freeze “until the Covid outbreak is done.”

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