Hard choices confront Wicomico budget players

An annual feature of the county’s kick-off budget feature is school board employees and parents lining up to request full funding of the Wicomico Board of Education’s budget request.

This year, County Executive Bob Culver’s budget feedback session was scheduled the same night as the annual Teacher of the Year dinner banquet. Whether by coincidence or on purpose, the presumption in scheduling was few teachers would be in attendance last Thursday night to confront county leaders on schools spending.

More than a dozen schools employees rose to support full funding of the school board’s $194 million budget. They were joined by county Detention Center employees and county library workers in seeking increased county spending in their departments.

Last year’s budget was settled at $143 million. This year, according to Culver, department heads and funding agencies have asked for increases of $8.2 million. Throw in another $14.2 million in nonrecurring requests, he said, and the total is $22.5 million in requested increases.

At 47 percent of total revenues, property taxes are the county’s largest revenue source. The current property tax rate is .9398 cents per $100 of assessed value. If the rate is unchanged, rising assessments will allow the county to bring in $56.2 million, $5.6 million more than last year.

Income taxes – the so-called “piggyback tax” – accounts for 37 percent of county revenue. After steep drops in this source during the recession, receipts bounced back from 2013-2016, with a 2 percent growth in last two years.

According to County Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg, income taxes are up because there has been solid growth in employment. The employment rate reached a historic high in Wicomico in 2017, but growth has lately flattened to 1 percent per year.

About 36 percent of the budget goes to fund education; 24 percent goes to public safety and public health.

The county uses property taxes and income taxes to fund its continued and routine spending. It taps into its savings for one-time purchases or to support capital spending projects.

The Revenue Cap first imposed on the 2002 budget – which has been in the news lately – restrains any possible tax increase to 2 percent.

The most the property tax rate could be raised to under the revenue cap is .9426 cents, generating $56.3 million. A single penny on the tax rate equals about $600,000 in revenue.

The Board of Education is asking Culver to fund a $194 million budget for fiscal 2019. Because there’s $7.3 million gap between its request and previous funding, Culver and his team will face some potentially awkward decision-making as they weigh between school requests and the desires of other county sectors.

The state’s Maintenance of Effort formula number for Wicomico demands school spending rise by $646,000 at the minimum.

“We’ve got some very, very difficult decisions to make,” Strausburg told the hearing participants, “so we’re in the process of determining what our priorities are going to be, what we can see ourselves funding and what we’re going to have to defer.”

After hearing public input, Culver made it clear that the election year budget was going to be a tight one.

“There’s only so much money to go around,” Culver said. “I would love to give everybody everything I could. Let me tell you now – I can’t give the $7.5 million and fully fund the BOE’s request because I’ve got so many other requests.

“If I’m able to give $1.3 million or $1.4 million over last year, I’m going to be very pleased,” he said. “That’s how tight things are right now.”

For the first time in the past several years, those coming to the microphone to offer input consistently raised the topic of employee pay.

Wicomico County Education Association President Joan Smith said the county needs to improve salaries and working conditions for teachers. WCEA represents school board employees in their negotiations and interaction with county leadership.

The school board’s budget does include a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment beginning July 1. The last bargaining session with WCEA concluded March 1, when the board tentatively agreed to a new contract with teachers.

If the county somehow does not provide funding, by law the school board would have to go back in and renegotiate the contract with whatever funding is approved and available.

The contracts includes a 1.5 percent increase for support staff members, including instructional assistants, custodians, maintenance employees and secretaries.

Harry Suber, a teacher and coach with 10 years’ experience in the county schools, gave perhaps the most impassioned speech of the night, urging county leaders “to do what’s important and not just what’s urgent.”

“From my experience, a happy teacher is a good teacher,” Suber said. “(and) 4.6 percent of incoming college freshmen in the year 2017 are majoring in education – the number in the 1970s used to be 10 percent. Why is that? Because we are being made to be martyrs.

“Society’s ills are being dumped on us, and it’s up to us to deal with it,” he said. “Our higher-ups are taking advantage of our philanthropic and civic-minded nature. They know we’ll just do it. We’re on the front lines every day.”

With his fellow school board members attending the Teacher of the Year event, John Palmer was the lone Board of Education official to speak. He saluted Culver and Strausburg for helping to create a positive environment for discussing schools spending.

“A lot of people don’t know that the County Executive and Mr. Strausburg have spent a growing amount of time – considerable hours – in our schools,” Palmer said. “They are willing to learn and understand where we spend our money. We’re not just sitting around butting heads. We’re trying to move forward.”

In his concluding comments, Culver reminded the speakers that he is merely “a funding agent” and the school budget – and therefore salaries – are set within the budget approved by the school board.

“I think the world of teachers,” Culver said. “I have seven members of my family who are teachers. (But) I have no control over your salaries. I could give $100 million and you could not get a penny of it.”

 

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

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