Carroll's Board of County Commissioners dove into conversations Thursday about the fiscal year 2018 budget process, discussing factors to keep in mind moving forward, and setting a plan to reevaluate and confirm priorities before work sessions begin in April.
There are a few key things to keep in mind as they head into the budget process, the first of which is that the revenue outlook heading into FY18 has "modestly improved," said Ted Zaleski, director of the county Department of Management and Budget.
But, he said, another thing to remember is that pressures to maintain service levels remain strong, despite cuts after the recession.
"We did not make choices to reduce service levels," he said. "We're still struggling to hang on to those service levels."
Zaleski said he encouraged the commissioners to ask those who report to them if there are places in services they provide where they're struggling. It might lead to productive conversations to understand that, he said.
The third core thing to remember, he said, is that uncertainty is "greater than our flexibility."
"With uncertainty, there's possible good things and possible bad things," he added.
The county doesn't have much room to absorb any "bad things," like unexpected mandates or an emergency, Zaleski said. There's also uncertainty with the state's budget, he said, and a lot of it depends on what goes through during the legislative process.
There are also questions as to what one-time funding could come to the public school system, he said. Last year, Carroll schools received $4 million in one-time hold harmless funding from the state.
Even with the uncertainty, Zaleski said projections show a $1.2 million increase in the county's revenue over what was budgeted in FY17. Coming out of FY17, the county is projected to end up with $3.7 million unassigned, he said.
Property assessments have also been looking positive, Zaleski said. It's the third consecutive positive reassessment.
The northeastern portion of the county, which includes the Finksburg, Hampstead, Manchester and Union Mills areas, was reassessed this year. Residential property values went up by 4.9 percent in the assessed area of Carroll and commercial property values by 9.4 percent.
"At least we're getting to a more comfortable territory," he said. "Our revenue is increasing, but increasing very slowly."
Zaleski also took time Thursday to talk to the commissioners about possible funds and flexibility for future projects, something they asked for while discussing the future of the Charles Carroll Elementary School building.
The commissioners need to determine what to do with Charles Carroll, North Carroll High School, the State's Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office, he said. There have been discussions in recent years about both the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office needing space to expand from their locations on Court Street in Westminster.
Zaleski said there's about $15 million total cash available in FY18, and fiscal years 2019 through 2023 could support debt service on $75 million in bonds. But, Zaleski said he isn't saying commissioners should use all of the money, and has previously stated the number he gives on this topic can't be viewed in a vacuum.
"I guess it comes down to how high are the priorities to spend the money this way relative to other priorities you may have," he said.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, made a point to clarify that that $75 million in bonds is only in reference to FY22 and FY23. Only about $25 million in bonds would be doable in FY18 through FY21, he said, and only after that does it "skyrocket" up.
Zaleski clarified his point in showing the numbers was to present to commissioners just how much they could do, not what he recommended they do.
Commissioners seemed cautiously hopeful moving forward, but were adamant in clarifying priorities as the budget process continues.
"This is much more optimistic than we were two years ago," said Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2. "This is a good thing."
And while Weaver, the board's president, said he knows they need to be cautious, there's a brighter light.
Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, said before they move into budget discussions, he'd like to have time to revisit board objectives. They need to have a philosophical discussion, he said.
"I think that would be a helpful discussion to have before we get into the nuts and bolts," he said.
Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, agreed, though he asked for this discussion to come after the agency hearings.
These hearings — where different groups that receive county funding update the commissioners on where they are financially and to ask for money they may need — are likely going to start at the beginning of April, after the recommended budget is presented Tuesday, March 28. Proposed work sessions on the budget are set for April 11 through 25.
The proposed FY18 budget will be released April 27, which will be followed by five community budget meetings May 1 through 11 and a public hearing May 15. The final budget is expected to be adopted May 25.
•March 28 and 30 — Recommended budget presentations
•April 3 — Agency meeting
•April 4 — Agency meeting
•April 6 — Agency hearing
•April 10 — Agency hearing
•April 11 — Proposed budget work sessions begin
•April 27 — Proposed budget approved
•7 p.m. May 1, Eldersburg branch library — Community meeting
•7 p.m. May 3, North Carroll branch library — Community meeting
•7 p.m. May 8, Westminster branch library — Community meeting
•7 p.m. May 10, Taneytown branch library — Community meeting
•7 p.m. May 11, Mount Airy branch library — Community meeting
•7 p.m. May 15, Carroll Community College — Budget public hearing
•May 25 — Budget adopted