Tonight Wicomico County Councilman Bill McCain hosted a townhall-style meeting designed to solicit solutions to the county’s present and upcoming budget woes. While yesterday’s Daily Times article pointed out that McCain was looking for suggested possible fixes, many of the nearly two dozen speakers had a single message: taxes are too high and they couldn’t afford anymore increases there. “Stay within your budget,” warned resident Kay Gibson.
A number of speakers echoed their personal economic struggles; resident Ed Nelson said it well when he noted, “times are tough for everyone.”
But Bill was blunt: “you will have serious, serious services eliminated in Wicomico County” next year – “what are you willing to give up?” He continued, “we need to do things differently…unfortunately, we have capped ourselves on the revenue side.”
McCain is in somewhat of a unique position, as the FY2011 budget will be the last he’ll have input into – he’s chosen not to seek re-election, maintaining his original plan to serve one term. But he was determined to maintain his home and business here, so it’s obvious McCain is planning to stay involved. Two other council members who would presumably maintain their positions, John Cannon and Sheree Sample-Hughes, were also in attendance.
The county’s Board of Education was also a favorite whipping boy of some. Many speakers advocated the accountability an elected school board would provide.
On that note, all three Council members present were put on the spot by questioner Joe Collins, who wanted to know how they stood on an elected school board. McCain was a firm “no,” citing the “diverse” school board we presently have. Cannon and Sample-Hughes held their cards closer to their chest, with John stating a “70-30” likelihood of support and Sample-Hughes wanting to study the particulars more – she did indicate her district was relatively supportive as was she on a personal level.
While a number of speakers commented on the revenue cap and didn’t want to see it go away, a couple observers pled for “investment.” Mark Cullen, representing the county’s volunteer firefighters, pointed out that the $4 million provided by the county covers less than half of the expenses. Instead, we’re “burning our personnel out doing fundraisers.” (Surely there was no pun intended.)
County resident John Groutt blasted the “simplistic” solutions offered by the number of “TEA Partiers” in the audience and preached “we need to invest in our children.” We also needed to address the issue of sprawl. On the other hand, it was also properly pointed out that areas which tax heavily tend to have difficulty maintaining businesses and jobs.
Most of those commenting were critical of the county’s current spending, but there were a number of good ideas pitched for consideration. Among them were:
- Hiring a full-time auditor. The problem is that the county’s charter dictates the auditor be a CPA but the salary may not be sufficient.
- Rein in the liquor control board.
- Make union negotiations public as they are in Calvert County.
- Eliminate the two at-large County Council positions.
- Eliminate the County Executive’s Public Information Officer.
- Instead of layoffs being the “last resort” they should be the “first resort.”
- Replace the revenue cap with a tax rate cap, with exemptions for those on fixed incomes.
- Rescind the increase in teacher’s retirement benefits.
- Verify that all measures called for in the 2002 Parsons study are being followed.
- Selling off any surplus land the county owns (my idea.)
- Perhaps collecting some sort of tax on property owned by Salisbury University (also my idea.)
It’s worthy of note that in the last decade Wicomico County went from having the fourth highest property tax rate in the state to the fourth lowest. And if you consider education, public safety, and public works as “core functions” of government, McCain said that we spend 76% of our budget dollars on those items.
There’s no question that severe cuts will be seen when County Executive Rick Pollitt releases his FY2011 budget April 8th. But the dialogue tonight seems to suggest that raising taxes is going to be out of the question for overburdened county residents who will likely see tax increases on the federal and state levels.