Wicomico Council to meet Monday to reconcile budget

After voicing little desire to make changes to the just-approved fiscal 2018 budget, Wicomico County Council members have decided to meet in a special session next Monday to alter the spending plan.

They will not, however, engage in a round of budget negotiation, as sought by the county’s executive branch.

County Executive Bob Culver informed the council last week that the budget is out of balance by $72,886. Culver also said the council-passed budget violates the County Charter and asked members to meet with him and achieve a mutual agreement on budget cuts.

Therefore, the council will hold a special legislative session Monday at 11 a.m.

The council a week ago approved $684,783 in cuts that would both fund special needs in the county’s schools and provide a small property rate tax cut for county homeowners. On Tuesday, council members formally approved the $132 million spending plan that takes effect July 1.

Earlier that day, Culver warned the council those cuts were essentially invalid, because the last-minute moves left the budget unbalanced.

“I will meet with them and come up with cuts that match that reduction,” Culver said last Thursday. “This is not adversarial. They have made cuts that make it difficult to operate departments.”

Monday is the last day the budget can be changed and still meet public notice deadlines. Culver said he and his staff could meet with the council either today or Monday and work together on the budget.

In a letter addressed to Council President John Cannon and released to the public Friday morning, Culver said he was “disappointed” that he and his staff were not acknowledged at the May 30 council session and “were not afforded an opportunity to discuss the council budget amendments.”

He reiterated his previous concerns about the council’s actions, and then offered a negotiating opportunity.

“I believe the county taxpayers will be best served by passing a budget bill which complies with the Charter and will allow the county to operate with a balanced budget starting July 1, 2017,” Culver wrote.

“My staff and I can meet with you at a mutually convenient time to negotiate a balanced budget,” Culver wrote, “which will allow the amended budget bill to be passed by the council at the June 6, 2017, council meeting.”

Cannon refused to embrace Culver’s offer.

“We’re not convinced yet that the situation is what the County Executive says it is,” Cannon said. “What he’s asking is way beyond where the council is willing to go.”

Cannon said Culver wanted to reopen discussions about, among other topics, new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office.

There was a laundry list of things the executive wanted to discuss, Cannon said Tuesday. “There was no way we were going to open that back up.”

Cannon said that at the next meeting, members will adjust the amounts in contingency accounts to allocate the $72,886.

“If anything, these are miniscule technicalities,” Cannon said. “I want everything to be right, and if there’s any housekeeping to be done, I understand that. (But) anything beyond that, I don’t see where the council has the appetite to rework a budget that’s been passed.”

Finance Director, Attorney weigh in

Culver’s letter addressed to Cannon included two attachments, one from Acting County Finance Director Dawn Mitchell Parks and another from County Attorney Paul Wilber.

Parks cited a total of $72,886 within three errors in the council’s actions:

  • She wrote that the council made an expenditure misallocation when it cut a vacant Deputy Director’s post in the Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department, saving $76,500 in salary money. According to Parks, because $25,000 of that salary is financed through the department’s fees revenues (an Enterprise Fund), the full salary is not subject to General Fund cuts.
  • Parks made the same assertion about $45,635 in cuts to performance raises and uniforms in the county’s Solid Waste Department. That department’s Enterprise Fund derives income from landfill tipping fees and permits.
  • Lastly, Parks stated the council — in setting the new tax rate — had made a calculation error regarding the county’s assessable property base. That left a shortage of $1,751, she wrote.

Wilbur, in his review of the Charter implications, reaffirmed that Section 706 demands a balanced budget. He also cited the newly recrafted Section 705, which was approved by voters as Question J in a referendum last November.

Wilber cited language that states: “In the event the council decreases or deletes any item(s) and the Executive and council do not agree upon the expenditure of the surplus, then upon adoption of the budget the surplus shall be placed in the Undesignated Fund Balance for future appropriation.”

Culver said he isn’t looking for a “give me this, I’ll give you that” session with the council. “The budget is invalid and must be fixed,” he said.

Cannon, meanwhile, seemed unmoved by thing a few thousand dollars in a multi-million-dollar budget?” he asked. “I like to address issues in good faith, and I expect everyone to work in concert. Sometimes, I feel like that’s not happening on the other side.”

No time for review session

The County Council did seem to accelerate the budget-decision process. At a May 25 meeting, the body voted to hold a special session to approve the spending plan.

That May 25 session has been the subject of debate: Cannon said the executive team could have discussed cuts then; Culver said he wasn’t invited to the meeting and didn’t even know about it.

The May 25 meeting was clearly advertised in a posting on the county’s website. Listed as a “Budget Session Recap,” the meeting was held at 6 p.m. in a council conference room and broadcast on tape delay on PAC 14.

Cannon said council and executive staff had communicated before the meeting, so any suggestion that the meeting was a secret is untrue.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg said the speedy action prevented any opportunity for the two branches to make final budget confirmations.

“It would be normal to have a wrap-up session,” Strausburg said last week, “but after our last departmental (budget) meeting, they went dark on us.”

The council’s unanimous budget vote on Tuesday would mean that county property owners will receive their first tax cut since the mid-1970s, lowering the property tax rate by slightly more than a penny, down from the current 0.9516 cents per $100 to 0.9398 cents.

Council members also approved one-time spending on computer-related school projects, totaling about $429,000.

Despite the 0.0118-cent cut in tax rates, the county’s budget will still grow by about $8 million. As the county has recovered from the Great Recession — which postponed numerous projects and forced budget cuts — spending has increased by nearly $13 million over three years.

Cannon has often cited those recent spending increases, which he attributes to rising revenues, as a reason to seek new cuts.

Culver, however, links the increases to mandated expenses, including Maintenance of Effort spending for schools, a new pay contract for Sheriff’s deputies, escalating county employee health care costs and changes to capital spending that has allowed the county to rely less on borrowing.

 

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

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