Wicomico Council completes budget, cuts property taxes

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Completing an excruciating budget process, the Wicomico Council agreed Monday to microscopically adjust its previously decided property tax cut and rearrange the fiscal 2018 budget to achieve an accounting balance.

County property owners will still receive their first tax cut since the mid-1970s and the rate will remain the previously agreed upon 0.9398 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Council members had to adjust the rate out to 10 decimal digits to solve a $1,751 revenue discrepancy in a $143 million budget.

The current tax rate is 0.9516 cents. The median home value in the county is $172,400, which adds up to $1,641 annually. Under the new rate, that same home would be taxed $1,620 — a $21 annual savings.

A one-time spending commitment to the school board for computer-related classroom projects, totaling about $328,000, was left intact.

While Monday’s actions did little to change the overall budget picture, it did serve to illustrate possible relationship problems and power control issues between the legislative branch, headed by John Cannon, and the executive branch, headed by Bob Culver.

One veteran council member even used Monday’s meeting to hammer his council colleagues and termed the council’s actions “an embarrassment.”

Councilman John Hall, who represents most of Salisbury, criticized the small tax cut and said the money should have been devoted to capital spending needs.

“I’m disappointed with the budget process this year,” Hall began. “This is the most confrontational budget since I’ve been on council. The unwillingness of the council to work with the executive is an embarrassment.”

Hall, who was absent from the penultimate budget session June 6 for health reasons, said too little consideration had been given to the executive branch.

“The executive (Culver) offered several times to meet with the council and discuss the proposed cuts. Budget cuts were passed without any input from department heads of the executive office, without any thought of the consequences of the cuts.”

He added: “This tax cut is a posturing move for the election next year and it serves no one well.”

Council members seemed surprised by Hall’s statements. Councilman Marc Kilmer, who primarily represents the western side of the county, challenged Hall’s assertions that the tax cut would either jeopardize state disparity funding or necessitate a future tax hike.

The tax cut, Kilmer said flatly, “does not impair the ability of the county to operate.”

“I think the people of WIcomico County deserve a tax cut, and do respect your opinion, though I respectfully disagree with you,” Kilmer told Hall.

Cannon added: “When we last spoke, you were on board with it, so I’m not sure where there’s that disconnect.”

Hall was part of a unanimous vote that approved the cuts and additional schools spending on May 25.

Budget out of balance

Monday’s session was needed because the budget was out of balance by $47,386, after the council cut Culver’s budget proposal by $684,783. The county executive offered to meet with the council and review the cuts, but the council leadership refused.

Culver had said publicly that he wasn’t “looking for a ‘give me this, I’ll give you that’” session with the council, and his only intention was that the budget be fixed in accordance with the County Charter.

However, in a budget worksheet circulated to the council, Culver did propose that members restore funding for three additional Sheriff’s Office vehicles — 15 were requested by Sheriff Mike Lewis; 10 were approved by the council; Culver wanted to place three back in the budget.

And while Culver backed the overwhelming majority of the council’s cuts — including the tax cut — he didn’t include the $328,000 school computers funding in his figures.

Culver and county Administrative Director Wayne Strausburg were in attendance Monday. When the council adjourned, Culver immediately turned to a reporter and said: “We wouldn’t have had this meeting if they had a balanced budget like they said they had. Just write: ‘Bob (was) right, they’re wrong.’”

Later, in a more diplomatic statement, Culver said: “We are pleased the County Council has adopted a balanced budget in conformance with the County Charter.”

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.

The county’s contribution to the school board budget in fiscal 2018 is $43 million; the annual consolidated budget for the schools is $207 million.

The budget takes effect July 1.

May 25 meeting

Responding to Hall’s comments, Cannon took a proactive rather than a defensive tone in discussing the budget deliberations and outcome.

“I think this process was very effective,” Cannon said. “I too am concerned with the fact that it became so contentious — I don’t think that benefits Wicomico County whatsoever — but I would not go so far as to suggest the council didn’t do its part. The council cooperated. Every work session was an open work session.”

Cannon brought up the May 25 work session that has become a source of discord.

“The final work session we had when we made the cuts — the executive branch was notified that we were having the work session. They didn’t attend that work session, but that doesn’t mean the council did not ask them to attend — because we did, and it was also posted on the (county) website.”

Upon hearing Cannon’s words, Strausburg — seated next to Culver in the council chamber’s first row — began actively shaking his head “no” and then said something to Culver.

Cannon has previously maintained that the executive team could have discussed cuts then; Culver — as reflected in Strausburg’s reaction — has said he wasn’t invited to the meeting and didn’t even know about it.

Cannon continued: “There was plenty of room for cooperation. When the council did not want to meet was after we passed (the budget). Some of the recommendations that were being required, in my opinion, would ask the council to add to a budget we’ve already approved. We couldn’t do that. By Charter we’re not allowed to do that.”

He added: “So that was the reason for our reluctance to meet again — in my opinion, it was done. It was completed, we followed a very lengthy procedure, we had shared it with the Finance Department. I think we went step and step with it, every part of it, as best we could.”

That Thursday, May 25, session has been the subject of debate: The meeting was indeed advertised in a posting on the county’s website, listed as a “Budget Session Recap” and was broadcast on tape delay on PAC 14.

Cannon has also said the council and executive staff communicated before the meeting, so any suggestion that the meeting was unannounced is untrue.

When the votes were cast, Hall was the lone member opposing both the required budget amendments and the final budget as whole.

Councilmen Ernie Davis, Joe Holloway and Larry Dodd did not offer any comment during the 14-minute meeting. Councilman Matt Holloway, who previously played a large role in both securing the tax cuts and one-time school allotment, was absent.

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