Observations on a budget

It seems to me that political theater in Wicomico County only comes around once or twice per annum, and that occasion reared its head again last night.

Since I have a life which doesn’t revolve completely around local politics, and since I already knew just how the proceedings would go from previous experience, I chose to sit and watch the hearing from the comfort of my living room on PAC-14. And while there were a couple occasions when I was ready to bolt out of my chair and make the five-minute drive down to the Civic Center, I refrained knowing that I would have the opportunity to say my piece in this space. Besides, I write better than I speak and I’m not limited to five minutes at the mike sitting here in my easy chair.

In essence, what this fight boils down to is whether we need to tax ourselves into oblivion or not. Sure, it’s only a 5 cent per $100 tax which affects only property owners that’s the largest controversy. But increasing the property tax rate also increases the personal property tax (also known as the ‘inventory’ tax) because it’s calculated on the property tax rate, times a factor of 2.5. So that rate will leap 12.5 cents per $100. Other fee tax increases proposed (remember, according to the Democrats, a fee is a tax) include charging homeowners more for mosquito spraying, setting a minimum tipping fee of $5, and increasing the price of solid waste permits by 9 percent.

A large part of last night’s discussion seemed to center around the Board of Education’s budget, with one commentator stating the case that a decrease in the BOE budget would end up increasing the budgets for law enforcement and the county corrections facilities. The school board seemed to have the largest lobbying group there.

However, the grousing shouldn’t be at the local board of education. Nope, our problems began when no one had the guts (or a judge who exhibited a little common sense) to tell the Thornton Commission to go pound sand. Supposedly the state didn’t fund education enough, so a formula was established to mandate how much counties were required to spend per pupil. Whether the number has any basis in reality or not, that’s what the state and county has to come up with to meet ‘maintenance of effort’ requirements. Some whined about the fact Wicomico needed a waiver from MOE, but I think we should have a permanent waiver. The state would be far better served to let the money follow the child and allow the parent more choice, but that’s a discussion far beyond the scope of a modest-sized county’s budget.

G.A. Harrison brought up a point I’d brought up before, and one promised by the County Executive before he was even elected. We were told that the budget would be stripped down to nothing (as County Executive Rick Pollitt claimed to do in Fruitland) then rebuilt as needs were apparent.

Unfortunately, our process seems to lean too heavily on department heads who aren’t even willing to level-fund their departments, let alone make cuts. Perhaps the budget building needed to proceed as follows – and bear in mind Rick Pollitt has threatened to create a ‘shadow budget’ in the past.

We generally have an idea of what our revenues should look like before the budget is even created. I’ll present the following scenario, with numbers that are generally close to the mark but may not be exact.

Let’s assume that projected revenue without tax or fee increases of any sort is $110 million. By prioritizing what services need to be provided, the budget is prepared as if that would be the actual revenue. We should have an idea of what employees are paid, how much facility costs are, price of office supplies needed, and so forth.

At that point, we can estimate the impact of any tax or fee increases, regardless of how small, and then assign an extra expenditure to each – it doesn’t necessarily have to be in that department. Let’s say the $5 tipping fee creates $100,000 in revenue and thanks to that influx of cash we can hire (or retain) two teachers. For that matter, it could be any of a menu of options that we can think of – it’s two teachers, or staffing for an economic development office, or new radio equipment for the sheriff’s department, or HVAC renovations to a county facility. Whatever it is, at that point we can determine whether we want to bear the extra cost among ourselves for (the statists’ code phrase for this would ‘invest in’) the additional service or improvement.

Instead, we are just told that to maintain this county’s ‘quality of life’ (and how do we measure the cost/benefit analysis of that?) we have to increase these taxes and fees to match the budget wants County Executive Pollitt has set forth. If we don’t tax ourselves this way then someone has to suffer.

This method is working the system exactly backwards – it’s like walking into a restaurant with $15 and wanting the $19.95 buffet. They’ll let you up to the serving line, but you can’t have the steamed crabs, prime rib, or cheesecake. All you can eat are the items no one else will have like the Brussels sprouts and tofu. Maybe – just maybe – we’ll allow a plain lettuce salad; no dressing.

The better way would be to have the buffet come with a selection of inexpensive foods and cost $15, with the steamed crabs, prime rib, and cheesecake a $4.95 additional option if you desire to pay for it.

Our problem is one of perception. Everything goes up in price constantly, and the pound of flesh the federal and state governments extract out of us every year is beginning to feel more like they’re extracting five pounds apiece. Meanwhile, the quality of services doesn’t improve as quickly as the costs escalate. People notice this most in the perceived quality of our educational system, citing anecdotal evidence of high school graduates who can’t count change, speak proper English, or fill out a job application. Roads which were fixed a couple years earlier are already falling apart, they say, and they have to visit four governmental offices to get a simple permit. We all have our horror stories of dealing with government bureaucrats.

Of all the suggestions made during the portion of the county budget proceedings I watched, I thought those made by Tom Taylor made the most sense. His campaigns were always ones of thinking out of the box, seeking limited government solutions. (It was surprising that Tom twice sought the Democratic nomination for County Executive, but perhaps he’ll change those political stripes someday.) Contrast that with the person who spoke after him, Joe Ollinger – he basically said go ahead and raise my taxes because you’ve always (except for last year) raised them the maximum amount allowed. Sometimes precedents are made to be broken, and he of all people should realize there was a reason taxes weren’t jacked up to the max in 2010 – it was an election year! Rick Pollitt may not look like the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he possesses some political savvy.

If my math is correct – and generally it is – doing without the 5 cent tax increase would require about $4.5 million in cuts from a budget of $111 million. (Property tax revenue consists of about $3.9 million of that, with the corresponding inventory tax increase accounting for the other $600,000 or so.) That’s essentially a 4 percent across-the-board cut, and I believe that’s doable if the budget is pieced together in the proper fashion. (Remember, my theory is that it should have been based on the lower number, with optional buys and personnel placed as extra line-items.)

Instead, we get this annual (or semi-annual, as lean times have sometimes forced a mid-year course correction) whinefest where everyone pleads to either not have their pet services cut or not have their taxes raised. It’s pretty apparent whose side I’m on, because I don’t equate spending taxpayer money with gaining a better quality of life like Brad Gillis does. In my eyes, we should worry about the core of the core services first, then come up with the extras as we can afford them – taking into consideration their economic impact.

I trust our County Council will do just that, and the ball is now in their court. They just have to stand strong against the seductive pressure of constantly hearing that it’s only a little tax increase of money we’re entitled to anyhow under the revenue cap. Until the working people don’t have a revenue cap placed on them, the county government needs to do with less.

One final note: the speed camera legislation we thought was dead is rearing its ugly head again. Be at the County Council meeting June 7th and tell them they don’t need Big Brother as a revenue source. Speed cameras are not about safety, they’re about the cash. And Wicomico County will be the first to tell you they need more cash.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

4 thoughts on “Observations on a budget”

  1. “In my eyes, we should worry about the core of the core services first, then come up with the extras as we can afford them – taking into consideration their economic impact.”

    I could not agree more!

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