Council to hear public’s budget input on Thursday

The county executive and president of the Wicomico County Council said this week they hope the public will be at the public hearing for the budget Thursday to share their thoughts and concerns.

The forum will begin at 6 p.m. in the Midway Room of the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center, located at 500 Glen Ave. in Salisbury.

“I am hopeful the citizens will come out and let their voices be heard,” County Executive Bob Culver said Tuesday.

While the overall budget appears headed for a smooth sail, two areas could bring contention.

The County Council has yet to say much publicly about Culver’s proposal to pay tuition to county high schoolers who attend Wor-Wic Community College. The tuition plan is expected to cost $250,000 in the first budget year, with the number eventually rising to over $600,000 annually when fully enacted.

Only two of the seven council members voiced hard objections when the plan was unveiled last winter; it is unknown whether the council will try to amend the plan, cut it or oppose it altogether.

The second possibly contentious matter is the County Council’s own budget request for its own activities.

The council has told Culver to increase its budget by nearly $214,000, a 37 percent funding increase. Under the County Charter, Culver cannot control the council’s expenses, but it is clear that Culver doesn’t support the additional spending.

The council wants the money to hire its own legal counsel, a move the council is expected to explain as part of the budget hearings process.

“(Even) without a tax increase, our economic development initiative with the Wor-Wic Scholarship can be achieved,” Culver said. “Savings in many areas have made it possible to also give the county employees a 3 percent increase, which has been a long time coming.

“The executive’s budget also fully funded the requests for the Wicomico County Board of Education, the library and Wor-Wic Community College. Along with all of this, we were able to fund the collective bargaining agreement with the Sheriff’s Office and FOP,” Culver said.

Council President John Cannon, too, said the council will welcome comments.

“I hope they show an interest in how their taxpayers’ money is being spent,” Cannon said.

“At first blush, there is nothing that controversial in this year’s budget, but there are always elements people pick up on that even we don’t catch,” he said.

He said he’s interested in hearing how the community feels about the county paying tuition to Wor-Wic and agreed with Culver that the cost wouldn’t force a tax increase.

“We’re fortunate now, seeing an increase in property values and revenues, so there’s a favorable economic outlook. We held back for many years because the revenue wasn’t there. All across the United States, everybody has been waiting for some kind of recovery,” Cannon said.

Usually, budget hearings don’t draw a huge crowd, he said. Board of education members and those associated with the board, and with schools, are there. This year, though, the board of education was pleased with county funding, he said.

“The important thing is that we are always fiscally responsible,” Cannon said.

Culver last month submitted a $135.2 million spending plan to the County Council, to take effect for the 2017 Fiscal Year which begins July 1.

The budget is about $6 million more than the current year’s budget. With the county seen as finally emerging from sluggish economic times, local property tax receipts are expected to rise $6.18 million.

No tax increases are proposed.

Thanks to growing revenues from property and personal income taxes, as well as departmental spending that has been reined in for a second consecutive year, Culver will add to the county’s reserve fund while also absorbing escalating employee benefits costs.

New spending that expands beyond traditional needs includes money to finance an ambitious tuition plan for high school student who might want to attend Wor-Wic Community College, as well as money to help address the opioid drug abuse crisis now gripping the community.

The county’s contribution to the school board’s budget — typically the greatest tension-inducing issue each budget year — would increase 1.21 percent to $52.44 million, but that includes a $10.5 million hike in capital contributions.

Culver’s budget supplies an additional $626,648 to the school board’s general fund, which reflects increases in the state’s Maintenance of Effort formula, attributable to higher projected enrollments.

In its March budget presentation, the school board requested $42.5 million from the county for general funds use; Culver is offering $41.9 million.

At an initial budget forum last week, school board members took turns thanking Culver and his administration for the numbers included in the budget — a departure from last year’s budget feedback.

The county school system’s budget proposal for the coming year is just under $200 million, up from about $191 million in the current year. While the county’s contribution to schools funding is less than 25 percent of the system’s total budget, schools spending is 43 percent of the county’s budget.

“We always like to have more, but I’m happy ,” said Don Fitzgerald, president of the board of education.

“Bob is not cutting anything. He’s working with us on everything we’ve asked . I said ‘thank you.’  We got Maintenance of Effort. We won’t get to do all the projects we wanted to do, but it came out really good for us. It’s all about the kids,” he said.

Culver, in an interview with Salisbury Independent, seemed relieved to be avoiding a fight with the school board and it administration.

“We gave them what the Maintenance of Effort was and we were very happy that they went along with it,” Culver said. “I’m, pleased that we’re on the same page for this year, anyhow. Whether next year holds out, I’m not sure — but we’re moving forward.”

Culver’s budget includes a 3 percent pay increase for county employees and needed capital improvements for public safety. The Wicomico Sheriff’s Office would be allowed to purchase 10 new vehicles.

Culver said there will be increased funding for the MAC Center for the elderly and to the Humane Society of Wicomico County. In the category of new spending, a budget item to address the opioid  addiction problem in the county has also been included.

Culver said he also opposes possible raises for the council’s administrative staff beyond the 3 percent increase he’s budgeted county-worker-wide.

The County Council can only cut the executive’s budget; they cannot add to it.

The council has until June 1 to adopt a budget. Last year’s fiscal 2016 budget came in at $129 million. The county’s property tax rate is $0.9516 per $100 of assessed property value.

 

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

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