Culver questions Wicomico Council spending cuts

Historically under the County Charter, the Wicomico Council can cut a County Executive’s proposed spending plan, and the seven members did just that, removing $684,783 from the fiscal 2018 budget.

Their unanimous actions — which the council made final with a formal vote Tuesday night — mean county property owners will receive their first tax cut in memory, lowering the property tax rate by slightly more than a penny, down from the current 0.9516 cents per $100 to 0.9398 cents.

In a budget work session last week unlike any since the creation of the County Executive form of government, council members appeared to arrive determined to cut some spending and assign cash to a priority school project that was left out of the Board of Education budget.

Those school projects — totaling about $429,000 — were later presented separately to County Executive Bob Culver but rejected. State law permits the council to add dollars it cuts to specific Board of Education projects requested outside of the schools budget but denied.

Relying on a priority list provided by the school board, the council compromised and funded about $328,000 of the $429,000. That will allow much-desired computer laptop carts in multiple schools.

At Culver’s first budget hearing in April, several teachers and school administrators made a coordinated and public request for the laptop support.

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.

Tax formulas dictate that a 1-cent cut in the property tax rate would require a balancing $581,000 cut in spending.

Under the current rate, a home assessed at $200,000 pays $1,903 in county taxes. Under the new rate approved Thursday, that same property would pay $1,880.

Culver raises questions

But hours before the council’s formal vote on Tuesday, Culver said the budget approval as configured creates a deficit budget and would be a violation of the County Charter.

“I admire them for finally becoming conservative and cutting something,” Culver said of the council, “but it’s a clear violation.”

Culver cited an addition to the charter that was approved by voters last fall, which said that if the executive and council don’t agree on cuts, the money goes into a separate account, “and there’s been no legislation on how to get it out of that account,” Culver said.

The executive also assailed some of the council’s cuts.

“I don’t have a problem if they want to cut a car,” he said. “I do have a problem when they want to cut cars from the Sheriff’s Office.”

Sheriff Mike Lewis had requested 15 new cars, but the council agreed to fund 10 instead.

“The deputies are driving vehicles that are pre-2006, with more than 200,000 miles on them,” Culver said. “If we expect our sheriff to protect us, they need to have the right cars.”

He also questioned the council’s handling of airport funding, county employee uniforms spending and funds for raises that are granted when employees achieve training standards.

“The cuts to uniforms — that was money in last year’s budget,” Culver said. “We’ve signed contracts for that. What are the employees going to do? Go back to wearing their jeans? The uniforms are a point of pride. They (council members) don’t understand.”

Culver sent a letter to the council earlier in the day Tuesday, seeking more negotiation.

His letter stated:

“This is to advise that, based on the information your office has provided to the Executive office, the budget changes that you have proposed will result in an unbalanced budget. This is a violation of charter section 706(A).

“Further, the Executive office has not been afforded the opportunity to discuss your proposed changes and their ramifications which is required by Council’s recent charter amendment 705(F). Prior to any further action on the budget we insist on this required negotiation.”

Neither the letter nor the executive’s concerns were mentioned Tuesday night.

Culver was not available for comment after the formal vote. Earlier, he said he had the backing of County Attorney Paul Wilbur in his assertions that the council had acted in error.

The budget takes effect July 1.

‘Sends a good message’

Councilman Joe Holloway of Parsonsburg, a budget hawk who has sometimes clashed with colleagues on spending, appeared especially content with the council’s decision making.

“In the 10 years I’ve been here, the taxpayers have never gotten a break,” he said. “This is not a great amount of money, but it sure sends a good message.”

Holloway, last week, almos seemed apologetic in taking the executive’s spending plan into tax-cutting territory.

“This is the only time of the year that we get to (work with the budget),” he said. “This is the meat of our job — overseeing the budget.”

Council President John Cannon declared the cuts “minuscule compared to be budget as a whole” and said the council could have correctly cut even more.

The county’s revenue from property taxes will be an estimated $55,680,143 on an assessable tax base of $5.8 billion.

The tax rate has been flat since Culver took office. In previous years it had risen fractionally, from 0.769 in 2010 to 0.986 in 2013 budget.

The county’s personal property tax on businesses will remain unchanged at $2.1715 per $100 of assessment.

Among the nearly $700,000 in cuts and adjustments agreed upon Thursday:

  • $300,000 for Fire and Rescue Services.
  • $285,120 for five vehicles requested by the county Sheriff’s Office.
  • $75,500 to cut an open Assistant Director’s position in the Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department.
  • $25,000 membership fee to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition.
  • $18,500 for a vehicle to be used by the County Council.
  • $5,000 dues fee for the Rural Maryland Council.

Sheriff to receive 10 cars

Members seemed disappointed to have made the Sheriff’s vehicle cuts, but pointed out they were still replacing more than 10 percent of the office fleet. Sheriff Lewis had requested $1.2 million for 15 new vehicles in all.

The change to the Fire and Rescue spending line centered on the situation regarding Salisbury’s former Station 1 Fire Department volunteers and efforts to provide them a base of operations at SBY Regional Airport.

The $300,000 pertains only to the airport situation; the council will fund the other fire company requests.

The staffing situation at the airport is still being decided. Part of the money will be put into a contingency fund while the executive department determines how to staff the airport under its lease agreement with Piedmont Airlines.

Personalities on display

In making adjustments to their third budget as a council team, members on Thursday kept to their areas of expertise and seemed to actually enjoy the budget exercise.

Meeting in a small conference room adjacent to the council chambers, the six Republicans and one Democrat crowded around a table piled high with budget documents.

Cannon started the meeting with a surprise declaration of “let’s cut property taxes.”

Councilman Matt Holloway of Hebron was perhaps the most active member of the group, using a calculator to tally how cuts could be diverted to school spending.

It was Holloway who first suggested the compromise to $328,000 (from $429,000) for the whiteboards and laptop carts.

The politics involved in the council’s actions were also apparent. With next year’s budget falling in an election year, political consensus has been that Culver will propose a tax cut for the fiscal 2019.

Now, the council has beaten the County Executive to it.

Budget details

Culver’s budget increased school board spending by $1.08 million to satisfy state Maintenance of Effort formulas. He increased county support to Wor-Wic Community College by $843,000, adjusted overtime rules at the county Detention Center that would increase pay there by $490,000 and fulfilled negotiated step increases of $148,000 to Sheriff’s deputies.

The county will borrow less money for capital spending needs and finance more projects out of its Fund Balance. Culver is seeking $9.1 million in capital spending projects, including $1.2 million for Roads Division equipment and $700,000 for a new roof and HVAC system at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center.

 

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

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment