Worcester County Offices

The Worcester County Commissioners adopted the FY23 operating budget on Tuesday in two votes, though neither was unanimous. The first vote was for the nearly $101 million for the public school system, which Commissioner Ted Elder opposed, and the second was for the remaining $126 million, which Commissioners Chip Bertino and Jim Bunting opposed.

Worcester County’s structural budget deficit is no more. And in its place, a modest surplus.

County Budget Officer Kim Reynolds reported during the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday that the projected $11.6-million shortfall was closed following last week’s budget work session. Now, the county has a surplus of $350,686.

County staff is recommending that the surplus be used on other post-employment benefits, or OPEB, specifically toward the board of education, Reynolds said.

Not satisfied with where spending now stands, Commissioner Caryn Abbott suggested that the Fire Marshal’s request for pay parity with the Sheriff’s Office could cause deputies to flock to fire jobs, where they’d be less at risk than they are fighting fires.

“While they should get a step, parity, I don’t think they are putting themselves in harm’s way like the sheriff’s department does,” Abbott said. “I know they both go through the academy and all that, however, they’re in the office more than they’re not. [They aren’t] you know, stopping cars with unknown people in [them] and serving warrants to possibly dangerous criminals. To me, it also would maybe hurt our sheriff’s department because people might want to flee from there. [After all], they could make the same money but not the risk involved in the job. That’s my only concern.”

Worcester County Fire Marshal Matthew Owens briefly explained that his personnel do provide backup to area law enforcement agencies and that they are certified like any other type of deputy.

Commissioner Chip Bertino, at the end of the meeting, took time to explain what has still not been received from the Worcester County Board of Education.

“During the past several weeks there has been an awful lot of discussion, comments made about the board of education budget and there seems to be a lot of misconceptions about what it is this body has requested of the board,” Bertino said. “I want to make clear yet again that it is not the objective of this body to micromanage the board of education. That is the responsibility of the elected members of [that board].”

Last week, the county commissioners voted 4-2 not to fund the school system’s budget over the amount provided last year, citing transparency concerns. The decision left the board of ed with a roughly $4.5 million deficit and no way to close it.

Bertino said Tuesday that the county still hasn’t received a five-year expense trend, a full-time equivalent trend by position, restricted grants listed with full-time equivalence object and categories, dates of restricted grants and additional breakdown of salaries such as how much is base salary, extra-duty pay, summer school, retirement incentive and payouts.  

He also said the county has received limited information on line-item details of software, technology and capital including vehicles. The same goes for details on restricted grants. The county also wants a list of expenses in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, grants that are set to be moved to the operating budget when they expire.

“It is our responsibility to see how taxpayer money is being used,” Bertino said. “There is no reason that all of us in elected office, all functions of government, should not be open to the public and the taxpayers to see where that money is being spent.”

At another meeting Tuesday, members of the board of education and county school system staff discussed the commissioners’ decision not to fund their full budget request.

Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert said staff members asked the commissioners what they would specifically like to see in the budget after learning in April that the commissioners were not satisfied with what was presented. Tolbert said he and Superintendent Lou Taylor met with county officials to get a grasp on what they may want to see and forwarded the additional information requested.

“It was two-and-a-half times more than what they had before,” Tolbert said of the info.

Taylor contended that he thought they were producing what was asked.

“All we hear is transparency. I get it. But we’ve not been able to get directly, what are you requesting in full transparency?,” Taylor said. “So we took some items, developed some things and we thought we were on target. Until we find out we’re not.”

Tolbert and several other staff members also addressed what they called “misinformation” surrounding claims county officials made about the board of ed’s budget. They pointed out as well that the county not only has a surplus in its budget now, but will also have unallocated casino revenue and more revenue from property reassessments next year.

“The county will have money,” Board of Education President Todd Ferrante said during the discussion. “They can support everything we’ve asked for.”

The Worcester County Board of Elections also made revisions to its budget request with an increased total of $74,504. Changes include an increase in personnel requests and a two-step pay bump with a 2-percent cost-of-living adjustment. The board also asked for $43,580 to increase training costs for judges and a state-mandated $100 bonus for returning judges and $12,240 for temporary staff.

This story appears in the May 19, 2023 print edition of the OC Today.

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