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New fire department among chief concerns as Carroll County commissioners hold first FY21 budget meeting

Carroll County’s revenue is slowly growing, but the commissioners and county budget director voiced concern about funding the new fire and emergency medical services department, increased recycling costs and money going to nonprofits.

Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget, presented to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday an overview of the fiscal year 2021 budget, which must be adopted by the end of May. The county’s current operating budget is more than $418 million.

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“There’s been no big change in how things look," Zaleski said. “We’re still growing, but growing slowly. That hasn’t changed.”

The purpose of the meeting, Zaleski said, was to set the stage for upcoming budget discussions and get ideas from commissioners about what they want in the budget. No decisions were made Tuesday, but the commissioners offered suggestions for the budget office staff to explore before they return with the recommended budget March 24.

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Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he wants money set aside for the development of the first countywide fire and EMS department. The budget currently provides for the new director and an administrative assistant — about $240,000 for benefits, salaries, payroll taxes, and operating costs — but nothing else related to the function of the department, according to Zaleski.

“At some point here I think we need to really … take some money and set it aside for the future of the department," Wantz said. "And I think it needs to be sooner rather than later.”

At first, Wantz suggested a placeholder of $1 million, then after discussion with the other commissioners, changed his request to be that the budget office put some monetary figure in the budget.

From a field of 38 applicants vying to become the county’s first fire and EMS director, three men have risen to the top, Wantz said in an interview Wednesday. The second round of interviews is to begin next week, and he hopes the director will be selected by mid-April.

During the budget meeting, Zaleski agreed there should be some figure planned for the department. He listed the future department as one of the big items on his mind moving forward in the budget process.

Zaleski also mentioned the uncertainty of the outcome of the Kirwan Commission’s funding, which lawmakers approved Friday.

The Kirwan Commission has sought to improve the state’s schools by devoting an additional $4 billion annually to education. Carroll County would not have to expend additional local funding for state schools, but Zaleski said he’s still worried about how the state will pay for its contribution.

Other concerns voiced by Zaleski included: Carroll County Community College’s request for $500,000 to increase salaries, Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association’s request for $1 million ($600,000 of which would be an ongoing contribution), and the uncertainty of what improved disability benefits for the Sheriff’s Office will cost the county.

Regarding the county’s revenue, Zaleski said he saw more downside than upside in the numbers.

“In fact, the only place where I really see significant possibility of upside is income tax,” Zaleski said, but he noted that projections are uncertain at the moment.

Income tax is the county’s second-biggest revenue source, after property tax.

The budget office is predicting the county will receive $161.8 million in income taxes, or about 4% growth, in 2021.

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Property tax for 2021 is projected to come in at $203.7 million, an increase of 2.5%, Zaleski said.

Once a boon to the county, recycling has become a cost for the government to bear. Zaleski said in an interview that changes to the global recycling market, particularly in China, produced a ripple effect, and now the county is losing money when it recycles.

“The solid waste fund cannot, under current arrangements, cannot support itself. General fund dollars have to go in there,” Zaleski told the commissioners. “The big game-changer here is recycling. It used to be a revenue of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and now it’s an expenditure of even more hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The budget office is predicting a deficit of $300,000 in the solid waste fund for FY21 growing to $1.8 million by FY25 if no changes are made, Zaleski said.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, noted the county’s hands are tied because the state requires jurisdictions to recycle.

Zaleski also raised a concern regarding nonprofit funding. At times, the commissioners have decided to help local nonprofits by providing them with funding for a one-time expense. Zaleski said this can open the door to anyone asking the commissioners for money. Wantz agreed with this concern and said they should look into it.

Commissioners offered suggestions to the budget office staff, asking them to try to include their wishes in the budget.

Frazier wants more sidewalks for children to walk to school. Wantz asked for improvements to senior centers and internet for residents without it. Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, expressed concern for special education funding, and he and Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, both said they need to begin thinking about a new detention center.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, did not have a specific request to be funded, but said it would be naive not to consider changing the tax structure. He asked Zaleski to give the commissioners a baseline understanding of what other revenue streams would be possible.

Upcoming budget meetings

Due to COVID-19, all meetings are no longer open to the public, Wantz declared Friday. Meetings are live streamed and can be viewed online through the county website meeting portal.

  • March 24, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., county office building, Room 311, budget office staff presents the recommended 2021 budget.
  • March 26, 1 to 3 p.m., Room 311, budget hearing.
  • March 31, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., 1 to 4 p.m., Room 311, budget hearing.
  • April 2, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., Room 311, budget hearing.
  • April 7, 1 to 4 p.m., Room 003, budget work session.
  • April 9, 1 to 4 p.m., Room 003, budget work session.

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