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Carroll County commissioners meet to balance budget; cuts seen as likely path forward

The Board of County Commissioners debated a potential tax increase and budget cuts during their fiscal year 2022 Proposed Budget Work Session on Thursday.

Commissioners and Carroll County Budget Director Ted Zaleski focused on concerns about decreasing revenue and increasing expenses in the upcoming years, and how the county could avoid looming budgetary problems over the next five fiscal years.

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The debate was clouded by an unexpected and subsequently unassigned surplus of more than $56 million from FY21 and FY20. The commissioners disagree on how and when to use it. So far they’ve only allocated $8 million, largely for infrastructure. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, advocated that they consider using much of it. Zaleski argued against using it to pay for ongoing expenses.

“If we balance the plan with one-time money, all we’re doing is making it pretty, we’re not making the problem go away,” Zaleski said.

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Wantz said that in his seven years he had not seen this large of a surplus. He said there was no way to give every department and constituents what they want in FY22 without a tax increase. A suggestion, no one, including Wantz was thrilled with.

“Why are we so concerned about 2028 when we’re trying to give folks what they need in 2022,” Wantz said.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4 pushed strongly against a tax increase, something he said would disproportionately affect the low-income residents of Carroll.

The commissioners all seemed to agree that a tax increase was not the way to go, although Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District-3, asked asked people from his district to email with their thoughts about taxes.

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When Zaleski presented the budget in late March, he recommended 5% of the yearly budget be put into an unassigned fund balance that would give some flexibility in the future. That would mean assigning some $21 million into the interest-accruing fund based on the current budget.

Commissioner President Ed Rothstein, R-District 5 cautioned against increasing funding in too many departments, because of the projected decrease in revenue over the next five years.

Rothestein and Frazier used the same metaphor repeatedly, the county eventually falling off a cliff if they funded spending requests the county can’t afford.

In the second half of their Thursday meeting, the commissioners focused in, line item by line item, to discuss where they could agree on cuts in the proposed budget and what they could do to best balance the budget.

Zaleski cautioned that with budget cuts the county could be left with a negative balance, he said he worried that once the county started to spend money it didn’t have, it would continue.

The current recommended operating budget plan calls for the school system to receive $204.6 million, sticking with an agreement to increase funding by 3.13%, which works out to $6.2 million. The Board of Education is proposing a budget in which the county funds an increase of $11.4 million or 5.7%, to be at the level in fiscal 2022 that was agreed upon in 2020.

At Thursday’s meeting commissioners discussed the possibility of not increasing funding by the $6.2 million recommended, and seeking state or federal funding to meet that increased need.

The commissioners also discussed requests from the Sheriff’s Office and looked at various scenarios in which funding would be increased, but not at the level requested.

They’ll meet again Tuesday to continue budget discussions.

The fiscal 2022 budget adoption is planned for May 25.

All sessions will be held virtually, televised on Channel 24 and streamed live on the county website. Check the county website or call 410-386-2400 to confirm dates and times. Open session is available for viewing on the county meeting portal and the county YouTube channel. In addition, all meetings will be replayed on Comcast Channel 24.

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