Carroll County’s commissioners unanimously adopted the fiscal year 2021 budget Tuesday with the intent of revisiting it in a few months, when they hope more is known about the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was the most challenging year that I’ve ever been involved with," said Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, in an interview. “It’s not done.”
This year marked Wantz’s sixth budget process as a commissioner. He said the board hopes to revisit the budget in the fall.
The FY21 budget was shaped under unusual circumstances. With no way of knowing how deeply COVID-19 will affect people and the economy, the commissioners adopted a $417.6 million operating budget that is $1.2 million less than the year prior. What’s more, the commissioners and county staff held their budget work sessions virtually for the first time, which presented logistical issues such as how to get the thick budget books to the commissioners.
Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said sacrifices were made in the FY21 budget, but Carroll’s situation may be better than in other jurisdictions.
“To the people listening to this, understand Carroll County is in much better financial shape than a lot of other counties and we continue to stay that way. I know it’s tough and we’ve made sacrifices this year, but not like some have to make,” Weaver said. “Things will get better.”
Before adopting the budget, the commissioners Tuesday approved solid waste tipping fee increases at the landfills and a new recycling fee for licensed haulers. The revenue these increases will generate does nothing to improve the growing deficit in the solid waste fund, however, as the commissioners also reduced the general fund transfer to the solid waste fund by the same amount.
Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, had a goal not to see taxes or fees increase. On Tuesday, he said he was frustrated there would be a fee increase, but voted in favor of it.
It’s “a bit frustrating that we are going in this direction, frustrating in the sense that we have to do it. The environment’s telling us that we must do it,” Rothstein said. “I’m in favor of this at the end of the day because it’s the right thing to do, it’s just very challenging that we have to do it at this point.”
He requested in the future the board continue to talk about taxes and fees, saying raising fees during a pandemic is difficult on residents.
The property tax rate remains unchanged from the 2020 budget, which the commissioners unanimously voted upon.
Carroll County Public Schools was funded to the amount required by law, at $198.4 million. However, the commissioners decided May 19 to adjust the capital fund, which is separate from the operating budget, to prioritize school construction projects.
The East Middle School replacement project was moved up so design and engineering work can begin in 2021, according to Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget.
Added to the queue of construction projects was a roof replacement at Winfield Elementary, to cost approximately $2.55 million over fiscal years 2021 and 2022, $1.2 million of which will come from the county, Zaleski wrote in an email.
With the governor’s veto of the Kirwan Commission’s reforms for schools, the school construction bill cannot go into effect, as a provision in the bill ties the two together, The Baltimore Sun reported. Wantz said in an interview that CCPS officials said the construction bill’s delay will make it challenging to secure state funding, but it would be helpful to have the East Middle and Winfield projects moved up in the queue.
Agricultural land preservation took a hit in 2021 budget. The budget cuts a half-million dollars annually to the agricultural land preservation program, giving it $2.5 million per year, though the program still benefits from bonds, agriculture transfer tax, and state funding.
Trying to recoup some of the money spent to provide services and update a fee structure that was set in 1995, the commissioners increased certain fees related to development review, engineering, stormwater management, floodplain management and forest conservation.
Unlike previous budgets, the book is not closed on this process. The commissioners agreed they wanted to come back to the budget and make adjustments after more is known about the impact of COVID-19.
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“In these uncertain times … we have no idea what’s going to happen," Wantz said.