County budget

(June 8, 2018) Worcester County income and property taxes will remain the same for the next year, as the Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday adopted their fiscal year 2019 budget, balanced at about $190 million, though Ocean City Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, was the lone nay vote.

“I find myself in a familiar situation, and I can’t support this budget,” Mitrecic said. “I have two issues.”

First for Mitrecic was the funding of nonprofits. In this budget, the county sharply reduced or eliminated funding for organizations that had previously received county funds. Mitrecic said the piecemeal way the county approaches this issue should be resolved.

“We should have some sort of meeting to formulate a policy,” he said. “I don’t disagree with the idea of the policy, but we’re picking and choosing without a formula or criteria. Then, to add insult to injury, we compare them to feral cats.”

His other issue is how the resort is treated in this budget. Ocean City didn’t get two things it was asking for: an extra $100,000 for tourism advertising and $600,000 over two years for security measures on the Boardwalk.

“We’re expecting $300,000 more in revenue” from West Ocean City because of the recent buildup in the area. So why, he asked, wouldn’t the county jump at the chance to add another $100,000 into the mix?

Those businesses, Mitrecic contends, benefit from zip-code-based advertising the resort spends money on, so the remedy is clear.

“We might need to pursue a separate zip code and marketing plan,” he said.

As for the security features, called bollards or low solid posts to prevent unauthorized vehicle access, Mitrecic said the county increased Ocean Pines’ police department funding, while the proper municipalities in Worcester get nothing toward police.

Finally, he talked about the tax differential.

“Ocean City is getting $90,000 less than it did last year. If Ocean City wins its court case, it may not want a piece of the $7 million, it might get it all, and then you’ll have to explain why tax bills in the county went up. You’ll have no one to blame but yourselves,” Mitrecic said.

The resort is seeking a court order declaring that it is entitled to a tax differential or tax setoff from the county for services the county provides but the city doesn’t use because it has its own version.

Among the things Ocean City and Worcester County can’t agree on is the value of the services. The results of studies performed by each government are millions of dollars apart.

Other commissioners had problems with the budget document, with the funding decisions, or with the criticism they’ve received — mostly by nonprofits and employees of nonprofits — but voted for the budget anyway.

Commissioner Ted Elder, who made the “feral cats” comparison last month, addressed the criticism from Mitrecic and the public during his turn to talk.

“You don’t know my story of when I was young and making minimum wage. I managed to buy my first home, and it was a struggle to find the money to afford heat,” he said. “All of the nonprofits do good work.”

The Art League of Ocean City saw funding it expected to receive cut this year, as did the Delmarva Discovery Center in Pocomoke City and Furnace Town outside of Snow Hill, but it was the art league that drew the most discussion.

“The fact of the matter is they had a deal before I came on here,” Elder said. “They got $100,000 or $20,000 over five years. The fact is it went for six years. When does that time run out?

 “We have our hands in the pockets of all of the taxpayers. When I went to work starting out, I had a peanut butter sandwich and drank water from the fountain. I take my money to pay for nonprofits,” he said. “I donate hundreds — thousands to nonprofits. Not taxpayer money, my money. I decide what to do with my money.”

As for the taxpayer’s money, little had changed since the last work session held in mid-May.

There was a surplus of about $830,000 generated from cuts the commissioners made at a previous work session in May, and that was spent on two dump trucks with snowplow attachments, a road-grader and a contribution to county employee retirement benefits, as well as some other small purchases.

After those purchases and after getting in all the final numbers, there was still a surplus of $117,700, which was added to the Benefit and Insurance Contingency fund.

Instead of funding the municipalities via revenue sharing or a percentage-based method, Worcester County provides towns with unrestricted grants — lump sum payments they can use for whatever purpose the town chooses.

Ocean City’s grant was increased by almost $122,000 this year, while Berlin, Snow Hill and Pocomoke City all got a $10,000 bump to their unrestricted grants, bringing them to $465,000 each.

Berlin had no special requests or projects this year.

Snow Hill got half of the money needed to repave Coulbourne Lane, but also lost out on its bid to have additional funding from the county in lieu of tax payments on property.

Because Snow Hill is the county seat, county offices take up real estate that would otherwise belong to the town and be charged taxes on its use. Snow Hill calculates this loss of revenue at around $320,000 per year, while the county pays the town $150,000 per year.

Pocomoke City asked the county to help fund its ongoing water pipe replacement project, which is supposed to correct the town’s long-standing issues with sediment laden and unpleasant smelling drinking water. The town asked for $55,000 to help complete the project, but this request was denied.

Ocean Pines, despite being the largest population center in the county, is also not an incorporated municipality, so its funding works differently. It does not get an unrestricted grant, but certain requests are filled on case-by-case bases.

The Ocean Pines Association, the governing body of Ocean Pines, requested additional funding for road and bridge repairs, as well as improved police aid. While the roads and bridge funding was eliminated, the county did slightly increase its police grant.

Brian has covered every municipality in Worcester at one time or another, and is one of the longest serving reporters in the region. He covers just about everything. He lives in Snow Hill with his wife, Lora, and two sons, Julian and Grady.

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