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County votes to up school funding, give residents tax cut, one-time rebate in FY15

Carroll County residents will get tax breaks and public schools will get more money in the upcoming fiscal year if the Carroll County Board of Commissioners does not change decisions it made Thursday.

The commissioners voted to fund Carroll County Public Schools at $165.3 million in Fiscal Year 2015 and give a one-time-only tax rebate of 1 cent per $100 of assessed value to property owners and lower the local income tax.

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Every year, the five-member board of commissioners toils over what level of funding it should provide the Carroll County Board of Education, and whether it has money available to offer tax cuts and rebates. On Thursday, the second day of FY15 budget deliberations, the commissioners settled the two most contentious topics in less than three hours.

With time remaining in Thursday's budget session, the commissioners also made the decision to provide Carroll County Public Libraries with additional funding to allow all branches to be open on Sundays.

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All FY15 budget decisions made by the commissioners remain tentative until they officially pass the budget in May.

Tax rebate and tax cut

The commissioners voted 4-1 to give a one-time-only county property tax rebate and lower the local income tax - or "piggyback tax" - from 3.04 percent to 3.03 percent. The county will use $1.8 million from its $12.6 million in surplus funds from FY13 to cover the one-time rebate and identify $400,000 in cuts in the FY15 budget to pay for the reduction in the "piggyback tax."

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, R-District 1, said she voted against the one-time rebate and tax cut because it was not enough. Frazier said she wanted to lower the county's property tax rate 1 cent per $100 of assessed value instead of offering the one-time rebate. The commissioners have already lowered the property tax rate 3 cents since being elected in 2010.

Her goal, she said, was to lower the county's property tax rate 5 cents from what it was when she took office.

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, argued that there is not enough room in the county's tight budget to find an extra $2.2 million in cuts in order to both lower the county's property and local income taxes. Under his and Commissioner Haven Shoemaker's plan, the county can offer a one-time rebate and lower the local income tax rate without making a lot of cuts, Howard said.

It is, he said, the fiscally responsible thing to do.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, spoke in favor of the combination tax cut and rebate. Cutting the "piggyback tax," even a little, is a step in the right direction. Taxes go up a hundredth of a percent at a time, so they need to come down a hundredth of a percent at a time, Rothschild said.

Offering a rebate for the county's property tax, as opposed to lowering the rate, ensures that the commissioners are not making decisions that will create a structural deficit in the budget, he said.

Education funding

The commissioners also voted 3-2 to give the Carroll County Public Schools $165.3 million in FY15, an increase of $3.3 million over what the commissioners planned to fund the school system. The county would use surplus funds to pay for the increase.

The school system would use $1.5 million from its $15.5 million surplus to help "fully fund" itself, under the funding plan created by Howard and Shoemaker.

Commissioners Dave Roush, Howard and Shoemaker voted in favor of increasing school funding, while Frazier and Rothschild voted against it.

Frazier argued that the county should not use money from its operating budget to fund the school system above Maintenance of Effort, which is a law that requires counties to provide schools with funding per pupil no less than that of the prior year. Maintenance of Effort would be $161 million for Carroll schools in FY15.

If the commissioners want to give the school system more than $161 million, it should only come from county surplus funds, Frazier said. That way, she said, the commissioners are not funding above Maintenance of Effort.

If the school system needed more money for operating expenses or to give employee bonuses, Frazier said, it should use its $15.5 million surplus to cover the costs.

Libraries

The commissioners voted 3-2 to commit $66,240 in its yearly operating budget to pay for all six Carroll County Library branches to be open Sundays.

Lynn Wheeler, director of the Carroll County Public Library system, met with the commissioners earlier this month to ask for the additional funding to build on the success of opening the Westminster and Eldersburg branch libraries Sundays.

The extra county funding will pay for the Finksburg, Mount Airy, Taneytown and North Carroll branches to be open from 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays from April to October. The Eldersburg and Westminster branches would also be open Sundays during that time period.

Frazier and Roush voted against the additional funding for Sunday library hours. Frazier said that if the library system wants Sunday hours at its branches, it should offer less hours on other days and cover the expense themselves. Roush simply stated he was not in favor of offering Sunday hours.

The original proposal was to use surplus funds to cover the Sunday hours for one year as a pilot program, but it was voted down 3-2 with only Howard and Shoemaker supporting it. Howard asked the commissioners to consider funding it on an on-going basis through the operating budget, making it an expense the county will have to cover in future years.

Sensing he was going to lose the vote, Howard pleaded with the other commissioners, saying libraries are "the great equalizer in a democracy." The vote was called and Rothschild voted "aye" at the last second, which prompted Roush to ask, "You were an 'aye' on that?'"

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