(May 24, 2019) Although final numbers are still forthcoming, the Worcester County Commissioners balanced their more than $201 million fiscal year 2020 operating budget this week after agreeing to transfer up to $180,000 from reserve funds, if needed, to match revenue and expenditure totals.
To help address a budget that began with requests exceeding revenues by $6.7 million, the commissioners presided over major reductions in requested spending, boosted the $.835 property tax rate by a penny and raised the income tax rate percentage from 1.75 to 2.25, which would still be the lowest on the Eastern Shore.
Budget Officer Kathy Whited said the property tax rate increase would be effective on July 1, which is start of fiscal 2020, with the income tax hike applicable on Jan. 1, 2020.
Obtaining a balanced budget required county officials to consider their spending priorities throughout the county.
Although phasing out Homeowners Convenience Centers in Pocomoke, Snow Hill and Berlin and the Recycling Center in Newark was hotly debated, the county-sponsored services survived with funding intact for fiscal 2020.
Commissioner Chip Bertino, after confirming revenue numbers, estimated the convenience centers operate at a roughly $700,000 deficit, while the recycling center in Newark is looking at losses of about $800,000.
Bertino asked if savings could be obtained by reducing hours of operation.
Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said that avenue would entail reassigning the eight staff members employed at the centers to other areas.
“It’s a service I believe the county constituents desire and want,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said the centers primarily cater to outlying parts of the county, while the ever-inflating costs are spread inequitably among municipalities.
“It’s a service that at some point and time is going to have to be looked and it’s going to have to be cut,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting suggested the time may have already arrived.
“In my opinion, we should do away with the centers,” he said.
Commissioner President Diana Purnell noted that shuttering the centers would concentrate trash drop-offs at the Central Landfill in Newark.
Bunting suggested residents could opt to contract with a commercial trash hauler for home pick up.
“It’s not going to be popular with my constituents but I’m looking at it from a responsible point of view,” he said. “I’m not worried about the politics.”
Shuddering at the mention of closing the facilities was Commissioner Josh Nordstrom.
“I wouldn’t even want to discuss closing down that convenience center,” he said.
While opposing shutting down operations this year, Mitrecic suggested that could happen by the next budget cycle, when more cost-cutting would be required.
Speculating that private trash haulers could be expensive for low- and fixed income residents, Purnell said the proposal would likely spur protests.
“If you close those it’s going to be hell to pay,” she said.
Public Works Director John Tustin said commercial trash haulers would cost roughly $400 for an average household, while the cost for residents to use the convenience center is $100 annually.
Commissioner Bud Church said any potential savings obtained by closing the centers would be offset by increased costs for road crews.
“If you close those … you’re going to see more trash on the highway that you’ve ever seen before,” he said.
Bertino noted convenience center rates were last increased five years ago.
Enterprise Fund Controller Jessica Wilson said the idea has been batted around previously and suggested the fee charge should be about $300 to cover actual operating costs.
“The problem is when we raise rates we lose customers,” she said.
Wilson estimated the last price increase caused about a quarter of the roughly 4,000 customers to discontinue use.
Commissioner Ted Elder suggested boosting the yearly fee to $300 if the long-term plan is to discontinue operations, thereby conditioning residents to pursue hiring commercial trash haulers.
“Is it worth the amount of money we’re putting into it as a service?” he said.
Proposed cuts to social service agencies budget requests, including the Maryland Food Bank, also raised questions regarding funding priorities.
After receiving $1,500 in the current year’s budget, food bank officials requested that number jump to $7,000 for fiscal 2020, while the county staff recommended maintaining current support levels.
Purnell proposed granting the Maryland Food Bank $3,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.
“They do a lot in this county,” she said.
Mitrecic concurred and said the assistance is especially important in the lower end of the county.
“I forget how many tons of food the food bank distributed last year but it’s an unbelievable amount … that goes out in this county to go help our needy people,” he said.
Following a motion by Bunting, the commissioners approved funding $3,000 for the food bank in fiscal 2020.
The budget strings also tightened for several recreational and cultural budget requests.
The Art League of Ocean City had requested $17,500 in funding, only to see the county staff recommend it be cut to $10,000 and then watched it fall to zero.
Following a motion by Mitrecic to grant the recommended funding of $10,000, Bunting proposed foregoing the request.
“It was zero last year and it should be zero this year,” he said.
The motion was voted against 4-3 with Bertino, Purnell, Bunting and Elder in the majority.
Conversely, Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum in Snow Hill was approved for a funding request of $40,000, twice the amount granted in the current fiscal year, but not without dissension.
Mitrecic made a motion to support the request while noting without financial backing the educational facility would likely be forced to close.
“Furnace Town is a huge destination for our school system,” he said.
Bunting said the funding should remain at $20,000.
“That’s what they should have counted on,” he said.
Bertino, while recognizing the value to the community, disagreed with taxpayers footing the costs.
“Fundraising is their responsibility and we shouldn’t be paying it,” he said. “To double Furnace Town is a mistake because it gives them a false economy.”
The commissioners voted 4-3 for the funding requested with Bunting, Elder and Bertino opposed.
The Delmarva Discovery Center in Pocomoke, which had requested $35,000 for fiscal 2020, was approved for the staff recommended total of $20,000.
Despite failing to gain traction after highlighting infrastructure needs, Nordstrom made several proposals to increase the county’s unrestricted grant to Pocomoke, which ended up being approved for $465,000, to equal the current fiscal year allotment.
Nordstrom’s first pitch was to grant ten percent of casino table game revenues to both Pocomoke and Snow Hill, which he estimated would net each municipality about $38,000.
To circumvent potential restrictions on disbursement of table game monies, for which the state has yet to provide clear guidance, Nordstrom proposed sourcing the figure from the general fund.
While contending that the entire county should benefit from casino revenues, Nordstrom noted Route 113 is the most direct path for Ocean Downs users who live south of Worcester.
“We have fire and EMS people that have to respond to any accidents, violations [or] anything that happens along the way,” he said.
Bunting said equivalent funding of $38,000 was approved through an ambulance grant for the Pocomoke Fire Department.
Mitrecic said the funding request should be tied to specific project.
“I have a problem giving any municipality ‘x,’ amount of dollars they can do whatever they want with,” he said.
Elder said the casino funds distribution needs to be reassessed.
“To keep pouring the money into the rich section of the county and not acknowledge the needs of the poorer sections of the county isn’t the way government should be working,” he said.
Commissioner Bud Church said Ocean City contributes a major portion to the county’s bottom line.
“Whether we like it or not, they’re the goose that lays the golden egg and I think everyone in the county benefits from Ocean City and the money they generate,” he said.
The motion failed after only generating support from Nordstrom and Elder.
Another motion from Nordstrom, which died for a lack of a second, would have provided Pocomoke with a one-time grant of $100,000 to held address infrastructure needs, including water filtration unit replacement, wastewater lift station repair, and river walk and break water replacement.
Nordstrom was the sole vote for another proposal requesting the county match new tax incentives offered by Pocomoke to attract new businesses.
Mitrecic, who seconded a motion from Nordstrom for discussion purposes, said oversight is crucial.
“Are we going to do this for beer and wine stores?” he said.
Bunting suggested any potential new businesses interested in Pocomoke’s tax incentives could also contact the county’s economic development department, which the commissioners could approve on an individual case basis.
Mitrecic said he has long supported the county providing tax incentives for any new viable businesses.
“I have an issue with every business getting this break,” he said.
Again, Nordstrom was the sole voice of support for his proposal.
Following this week’s budget work session the commissioners will adopt the final budget on June 4.