The Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to approve a $367 million operating budget for fiscal year 2014, a budget that includes flat-funding county non-profits, $400,000 for a controversial Education Opportunity Fund, raises for county employees, and a slight tax decrease for residents.
The Board is scheduled to formally adopt its budget May 28.
Commissioner Haven Shoemaker called the proposed budget the "best budget" put forth by commissioners during their tenure because they were able to fund Carroll County Public Schools and county non-profits at the same level as last year, reduce taxes on residents, and establish a education fund for home and private-schooled students.
"I think it's a win for the citizens of Carroll County," he said.
The county has allocated $163.5 million for the school system in fiscal 2014, down $1.4 million from 2013.
While the amount of funding for public schools has been criticized, a proposal by the commissioners to create a fund for home and private-school students has also generated criticism.
The budget calls for $400,000 to start an Education Opportunity Fund available to the parents of home and private-schooled students to help offset the cost of education.
Shoemaker pointed out that the $400,000 was not pulled from public school funding, but would have been used on debt reduction or something else if not for this fund.
While details on how the fund will be operated are unknown, Shoemaker said he had no problem allocating funds for a program that has yet to be established.
"Before one dollar is spent, we'll know how it's going to work," he said.
But Commissioners President Doug Howard said he is "very concerned" about the fund.
He believes the concept is a good idea, but the commissioners need to put forth preliminary guidelines in place before the money is spent.
"Hopefully that will happen before we go much farther," he said.
After proposing county non-profits see a three percent cut in funding this year, the board voted to flat-fund the organizations in 2014.
Howard said that decision was a direct result of hearing the community's support for non-profits.
Also, instead of facing a five percent cut in fiscal years 2015 through 2019, non-profits can now expect a three percent cut each year.
The budget includes a pair of tax reductions for residents. Business personal property taxes would drop 3 cents per $100 of assessed value and the income-tax rate would drop from 3.05 to 3.04 percent in 2014 with another reduction to 3.03 in 2015.
County employees can expect a three percent increase in pay, a combination of a 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment and a 1.5 percent salary increase. It is the first raise for employees in five years.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild said he doesn't love the budget, but it has its highlights, including $2 million to be used to pay down long-term debt, raises for employees, and the Education Opportunity Fund.
"There's something in it for everybody," Rothschild said.
Commissioner Robin Frazier was the lone commissioner to vote against the budget Thursday.
Frazier said she voted against the budget because more could have been given back to the taxpayers and the school system should have used more of its accumulated surplus in its budget.
"The taxpayers got the short end of the stick with only a quarter of a penny on tax cuts," she said. "I'm glad there was some reduction, but it should have been a little more."
Frazier has voted against each of the Board's past two budget proposals and if nothing changes before May 28, she plans to vote against a third straight budget.
Other features of the fiscal 2014 budget include:
•$55,000 to add Sunday hours at the Eldersburg Library from October to April
•No decreases in the hotel and amusement taxes
•$30,000 to create a part-time Veterans Service Officer position
•$100,000 for additional staffing in the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, and $60,000 to potentially rent space for the Sheriff's Department in Eldersburg
•$100,000 for maintenance and preservation of some buildings at Union Mills Homestead
•$5 million in FY 2014 to cover a shift in teacher pension costs from the state to the county
•$100,000 to cover health care costs at Carroll Community College•$54,000 for a new prosecution assistant with the State's Attorney's office