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Facing uneasy budget picture due to coronavirus, Carroll County commissioners look to cut costs, raise fees

Carroll County’s commissioners, facing a budget planning process with more uncertainty than usual thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, on Thursday sought ways to reduce expenses by raising fees.

Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget, said in previous meetings with the Board of County Commissioners that he had concerns about the fiscal year 2021 budget before the COVID-19 disease, caused by the novel coronavirus, hit Carroll. Now, with the pandemic’s economic damage to consider, there is an added layer of uncertainty in the budget process.

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All decisions made by commissioners during budget meetings are conditional upon the budget being adopted. The commissioners may still change their minds until the budget is finalized in May.

On April 2, in a remote session held via live-streamed video, the commissioners focused on raising some fees and creating a new fee so that more money is coming in and less is going out.

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A fee is set to cover the cost incurred by the county to provide a service. Fees cannot generate revenue for the county and cannot be set higher than what it costs to provide a service, according to Zaleski.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, suggested raising landfill fees to improve the budget picture. He proposed increasing the waste disposal fee for licensed haulers from $64 per ton to $65, generating an additional $100,000 annually. The commissioners unanimously approved the motion, which will be effective Jan. 1, 2021.

The commissioners voted, 4-1, to eliminate waste disposal coupons, saving the county nearly $193,000 annually. Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, voted against the motion.

“Each property owner in Carroll County receives two waste disposal coupons with their property tax bill,” Cliff Engle, bureau chief of solid waste, wrote in an email. “The coupons are good for free disposal of waste up to 500 pounds per coupon.”

Engle did not know the coupon program’s origin or how long it has been around. He said the county distributes about 131,000 coupons annually, but the vast majority go unused. In fiscal year 2019, 17,224 coupons, or 13%, were redeemed, according to Engle.

After a lengthy discussion involving Engle and Eric Burdine, deputy director of public works, the commissioners unanimously voted to create a recycling disposal fee for licensed haulers at $30 per ton, also starting Jan. 1. The change is expected to generate $450,000 annually.

Engle said it costs about $80 per ton to process recycling, not including the cost to transport and load the material.

Upon hearing this, Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, pushed for the fee to be even higher.

Engle said creating a new, high fee where there was none before could shock the haulers and lead to them seeking business elsewhere or recycling less. The commissioners agreed to start with a lower fee.

After returning from a two-hour recess, the commissioners voted, 4-1, to increase certain development review fees to cover the salary costs incurred to provide these services. Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, voted against the motion.

“I think we should be looking at other ways to cut funding within the county as opposed to adding this type of revenue on the backs of developers, on the backs of the community, and that’s exactly what I feel like we’re doing," Rothstein said.

Five out of 15 county agencies involved in development review charge fees for services, according to Tom Devilbiss, director of the Department of Land and Resource Management. Devilbiss jokingly called the fee structure a “three for one deal."

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In February, Devilbiss told the commissioners the current fee structure was set in 1995. It has been modified only slightly since.

County agencies of development review, engineering, stormwater management, floodplain and forest conservation currently charge fees for development review-related services, Devilbiss then said.

About $568,000 in salaries alone is spent in the development review process, Devilbiss said Thursday. Fees recouped an average of 40% spent to provide these services in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. That does not include other expenses such as printing or using county vehicles.

Devilbiss found, based on county archives from 1999, that the original intent of the fee structure appeared to be to recover 50% of the entire cost to provide development review services.

Frazier made a motion to increase existing development review-related fees to recoup the entire cost of salaries spent to provide services. Deb Effingham, bureau chief of the budget, calculated the difference. She found the change will bring in $342,000 annually and increase as salaries rise.

“I don’t see it as we’re trying to grow government here,” Frazier said. “We’re trying to make the end user ... pay for at least half of what the actual permit or fee or whatever it happens to be, actually costs, and not be subsidized by the rest of the people in the county.”

Zaleski said salaries account for about half of the costs incurred in the development review process.

Rounding out the fee discussion, Jason Green, deputy director of public works, came to the commissioners with a proposal to raise fees in the permits office.

Green said he consulted with a committee of people who work in the building industry to determine increases to fees, such as electrical, plumbing and building fees. The increases range from $10 to $20 per fee, he said. Weaver said most of the changes were suggested to keep up with inflation.

Currently, these fees recoup about 65% of what’s spent to provide them, Green said, proposing to raise them to cover 78%.

After Green assured the commissioners that the new fees were supported by the committee, they voted unanimously in favor of them. The increase will generate about $222,000 annually.

The commissioners’ next budget meeting is scheduled for April 7.

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