Clocking in at over 2 1/2 hours and plagued by technical difficulties, the public had its say regarding Wicomico County’s FY2011 budget last night.
The first 45 minutes of the show were spent by County Executive Rick Pollitt, our first County Executive – although as he joked, “if things keep going the way they are I might be your only County Executive” explaining the budget process. And it is still “a work in progress,” explained Pollitt.
Rick explained the county’s budget was the casualty of a “perfect storm” of “three serious fronts” – the recession, state funding cuts, and the revenue cap. But we were “not here to debate the revenue cap” and, besides, “objecting to taxes is as American as apple pie.”
Pollitt’s view is that “government exists to do that which we can’t do for ourselves.” But the budgetary troubles created by our situation placed the county in “extreme financial distress” to a point where we can’t make the Maintenance of Effort educational funding guidelines of the state. “I think that’s a tragedy,” said Rick.
While we had bridged the gaps in prior years by the usage of fund balances (nearly $12 million in the last two years) there is a dwindling pot to dip into, but how much remained wasn’t made clear in the presentation. Still, Pollitt stated, “we don’t spend everything we get our hands on.” To his credit (and certainly mindful that we’re in an election year), Pollitt ruled out a number of tax increases in his draft budget. There will be no increase in the recordation tax rate, enactment of a transfer tax, or raising of income or property tax rates. Keeping the property tax rate the same even though legally it could be increased even with the revenue cap saves taxpayers $400,000. Still, Pollitt asked about the revenue cap “at what point do we look at the cost of it?”
Looking at expenditures, Rick told us that “when we started the process we knew we would be in trouble.” Department heads were told to submit the bare minimum needed to run their departments by law, but the county was $22 million short after those requests were submitted. So cuts were inevitable, particularly in education, public safety and health, roads, and school construction. Even more troubling was Pollitt’s expectation that the maintenance of effort waiver would be turned down, leaving less room to cut education.
Pollitt seemed a bit emotional as he delivered the bad news. “We need a reason for people to want to come here,” he said. But the quality of life was affected by budget cuts and there “shouldn’t be a cavalier response to our budget crisis…we will have employees lose their jobs this year.”
Overall, Rick posed it as a question that we as a community need to answer: what services do we demand from county government and what are we willing to pay for them?
Then the public had their turn – over 30 stepped to the microphone of the 200 or so filling the room. Five of the seven members of County Council were among them – Gail Bartkovich and Stevie Prettyman were the absent pair, at least when the event started.
In what seemed like a well-coordinated effort, about 1/3 of those who had their say were either in education or worked with the library. Needless to say, their goal was to prevent their ox from being gored. Mark Thompson of the Board of Education was quite succinct in his appeal, daring those attending that “if you can’t fix the problem – shut up.” School superintendent John Fredericksen also was “very concerned about the massive cuts we’re going through.” Similarly, a representative of the county volunteer firefighters warned that funding was “already inadequate” and a parks and recreation supporter called cutting that department “a grave mistake.”
But that’s what I’ve come to expect at these meetings – even Pollitt mentioned to a citizen afterward that no one came up to the microphone and said “cut me.”
In fact, there were some interesting ideas for cuts and efficiency brought forth.
- Marc Kilmer made several good points, pondering if department heads are the best judges for cutting spending to their departments and the “need to get a hold of” our pension system.
- We all liked Brad Gillis’s description of the 2003-07 era as “a really good party” but now we’re enduring the hangover.
- Matt Tremka again raised the suggestions of eliminating the two at-large County Council positions and the public information officer. But Pollitt took eliminating the PIO off the table since many of those commenting wanted to have more information about the budgetary process.
- John Palmer stressed the need for a county auditor.
- Ken Nichols probably didn’t make many friends in the audience when he suggested teachers take a 10% pay cut. Of course, with education being a labor-intensive field that could make a serious dent in the deficit.
- Donnie Waters asked if we could “distribute the tax load” by raising taxes on tourism-related items and getting enabling legislation to allow us to keep tax revenues here. To him this annual budget process was “organized political insanity.”
- G.A. Harrison pointed out that there were “no reductions in spending until revenue dropped” in the last couple years and that educational money spent doesn’t equate to quality – would you send your child to D.C. schools?
- Fran Reed, a “new kid on the block” (having been here only 3 years) suggested ending the “gotta spend it all” mentality of government.
In his closing comments, Pollitt told those remaining that the county had been deemed efficient in previous studies but perhaps (if the money could be found) it was time for another study. He was considering appointing a volunteer group to determine the scope of that work. He also pointed out that the county has a speaker’s bureau to help answer some of the questions about county operations and spoke about creating two committees to serve as brain trusts – the Council of Economic Advisors and the Debt Affordability Study.
One comment I have about the process as a whole, though, is that it’s incomplete. While the county is projecting revenues of $108.5 million for FY2011, this only includes money raised locally. As I understand it, the TOTAL budget for the Board of Education dwarfs the county’s overall budget, but that’s not something we were made aware of in this meeting. State and federal funding to the county wasn’t really discussed except in passing.
But if we’re interested in discussing the entire financial situation these are numbers we need. One thing I noted when I said my piece is that there are a number of unfunded mandates and strings in our budget which we’re not aware of. Perhaps a better way of stating this is that when we take the federal or state grant there are always some restrictions on how we spend it, but these may not necessarily be limited to the subject of the grant. For example, the state of Maryland recently had to pass several new regulations regarding unemployment insurance in order to secure an infusion of funding. Getting a grant for police officers requires a municipality to maintain their employment beyond the length of the federal funding, so in the out years the city or county assumes the burden of paying for the officer’s salary and benefits – money which must be budgeted.
I also noted that it’s not in government’s interest to solve problems – to do so would be to remove the program or agency’s reason for being. If crime was down we would need fewer police officers, or if we figured out how to prevent a special-needs child from becoming so we wouldn’t need those teachers. Perhaps these are poor analogies, but if you have a philosophy that “government exists to do that which we can’t do for ourselves” wouldn’t that make the best interest of government at odds with self-interest? It’s incentive for them to tell us that we can’t do it for ourselves.
We are supposed to have a clear picture of Pollitt’s intent next week when he reveals his version of the FY2011 budget.