Worcester County Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic speaks before the vote on the county's FY19-20 operating budget during a meeting Tuesday.

Mitrecic wants better treatment for resort

(June 7, 2019) The Worcester County Commissioners approved a $201.2 million operating budget for fiscal year 2019-20 in a 6-1 vote Tuesday, with Commissioner Joseph Mitrecic continuing to object to the county’s budgetary treatment of Ocean City. 

While Mitrecic said he appreciated the work that was done to complete the budget and the attempts that were made to respond to the concerns of Ocean City, the district he represents, he said he wouldn’t vote for it.

“I, of course, voted against the budget the last four years because of the tax differential situation for Ocean City and will do so again today,” Mitrecic said. “I think that Ocean City still needs to be treated [fairly].”

From Ocean City government’s and Mitrecic’s point of view, resort property owners pay for county services they don’t use, thus putting the resort in the position of subsidizing those services for other Worcester Communities.

But with only Mitrecic dissenting, the commissioners approved a budget $11.2 million more than last year’s $190 million fiscal package.

Among the reasons for the 5.9 percent rise in spending were increasing expenses for retirement, education and public safety.

There was $4.5 million in additional funding for other post-employment benefits for county and board of education employees, $3 million for board of education operating expenses and $1.1 million in public safety funding for the P25 radio equipment, and volunteer fire and ambulance companies, according to Worcester County officials. 

Along with public safety, the emergency services department had a 31 percent increase with about $3 million requested for the fiscal year 2019-20 operating budget.

The parks department also saw a 47 percent increase, requesting roughly $1.8 million for the fiscal year 2019-20 operating budget. That’s about $590,000 more than the roughly $1.2 million approved for the 2018-19 fiscal year budget.

Interfund charges show a 77 percent decrease with nearly $395,000 requested for the fiscal year 2019-20 budget as compared to the approximately $1.6 million approved for last year’s budget, according to reports. 

The commissioners expressed their appreciation to the agency and department heads for making cuts to the budget.

“As a result, the commissioners were able to include funds for a cost-of-living adjustment, step increment or longevity pay in salary accounts for county and employees and the board of education as the need to attract highly qualified staff and retain valuable employees continues to be a budget priority,” county officials said in a statement.

To generate the additional revenue, the commissioners agreed to raise both the property tax and local income, or piggyback, tax rates.

The property tax rate was raised by 1 cent to 84.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, according to county officials. The new rate would take effect July 1.

The local income tax rate increased from 1.75 percent to 2.25 percent, and will take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

“Even with these increases, Worcester County residents will continue to enjoy the lowest income tax rate and the second lowest real property tax rate as compared to all other counties in Maryland,” county officials said in a statement.

County Treasurer Phil Thompson said the increase in the piggyback tax breaks down to $5 for every $1,000 of taxable income. For example, a resident with $35,000 of annual taxable income would pay an additional $175 per year. 

The additional revenue from the half-percent increase would help cover the other post employment benefits for county and board of education employees, according to a resolution.

“If we’re asking for an increase to income tax … the expressive purpose of this was to fund [post-employment benefits], and I’d like that somewhere so all know for now, and into the future, that that half-a-percent is to be used for OPEB funding,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said.

Before the final vote was cast, Mitrecic took some time to further express his concerns with the budget.

“I’ve been shortsighted during this budget process, and I’ve gone along with cuts that looking back on it now, I don’t feel comfortable with,” Mitrecic said.

While he acknowledged the work that was done to make cuts to the budget, he said it’s not a permanent solution and the same problems could return to future budget cycles.

“I think that possibly my shortsightedness in this budget is kicking the can down the road so to speak, and I apologize to the department heads and to the employees of the county for going along with some of these cuts that we made,” Mitrecic said.

He also warned others of what he feared could happen in the future.

“I can’t support this budget,” Mitrecic said. “Again, I think that we’re going down a road that if we keep kicking that can down the road, sooner or later it’s going to fall into a big hole, and I don’t want to be a part of it.”

However, Mitrecic did say he supported the county’s board of education budget. He seconded a separate motion made by Commissioner Jim Bunting to approve the board’s $103.4 million total operating budget for the fiscal year 2019-20. The vote was unanimous.

That figure also includes the approximately $11.7 million in school debt service, according to budget reports. There was a 6 percent increase, or about $5.5 million more from the roughly $97.8 million approved for the fiscal year 2018-19 budget.

Kelly Shannahan, assistant chief administrative officer for Worcester County, said the budget and enterprise funds were “conceptually approved,” but they won’t be formally adopted until budget resolutions are signed during the next meeting on June 18.

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