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Carroll County commissioners reach balanced budget proposal for fiscal year 2020

The long process of crafting a balanced budget for Carroll County in fiscal year 2020 reached a major milestone Tuesday afternoon as the Board of Commissioners voted to approve a proposed budget.

The five members of the board voted 3-2 to approve the proposal, with commissioners Dennis Frazier, R-District 3 and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, voting against.

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As a proposed budget, Tuesday’s vote only ends the initial process of weighing needs, wants, requirements, obligations and revenues. As County Budget Director Ted Zaleski said at the commissioners’ Tuesday work session, county staff will make the proposed budget available to the public on April 30. When asked for specifics on the proposed budget, Zaleski said Tuesday evening that he would be able to provide the Times with further details on Wednesday.

Once the budget is made public, county staff will hold five community presentations at branches of the Carroll County Public Library before a public hearing. The library meetings will be held May 1 at at the Eldersburg branch, May 2 at the Mount Airy branch, May 6 at the Westminster branch, May 7 at the Taneytown branch and May 8 at the North Carroll Branch, according to Zaleski.

“The public hearing is on the 13th at the Scott Center at [Carroll] Community College,” he said. “Then budget adoption is scheduled for the 28th.”

The commissioners have May 21 and 23 scheduled as additional work sessions to make changes to the proposed budget as needed, Zaleski added. He noted that, by law, they must adopt a final budget by the last day of May.

But to even have the proposed budget balanced is an achievement to be proud of, according to Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1.

“Based on where we started and where we are now, I’m happy with where we are,” he said in an interview. “We were at about minus $3.7 million when we started, so to get where we are by making hard decisions, I think, is admirable.”

That involved a lot of budget cuts, Zaleski said in an interview Tuesday evening.

“In the capital budget they reduced funding for information tech, facilities and roads, they capped how much money was going to the [agriculture preservation] program,” he said. “Those were probably the biggest.”

And those cuts were the reason why Frazier voted against the proposed budget, he said.

“I would have been happier if we had looked at ways to increase revenues and not cut as much as we did,” Frazier said in an interview Tuesday evening. “I know it’s a Republican county, we’re very conservative, but if you want services, if you want good people, you want everything Carroll County has to offer, you gotta pay for it.”

Frazier, in the board’s Tuesday morning budget work session and in a later interview, raised the example of the state of Kansas, which is still dealing with the aftermath of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts that went too deep.

“Years later they are $600 million in the hole, infrastructure is crumbling, police, firefighters teachers, social workers, they are all fleeing the state because they are not being paid,” Frazier said in an interview. “They balanced the budget on the backs of the workers.”

Frazier said he would have preferred to have taken more money out of agricultural preservation in the short term to have kept the cuts from going as deep elsewhere.

“We can still continue with ag pres at a slower rate,” Frazier said. “We could have taken a million or two from ag pres to fill up the million, or two million that we cut in the general budget.”

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Alternatively, Frazier said, the board could have partially rolled back some of the property tax cuts that their predecessors passed in 2012.

“I think for four or five straight years those taxes were reduced, which is a great thing, but we’re paying for it right now,” he said. “The commissioners got together and took three cents off the property tax. We don’t have to put three cents back, you could put one cent or two cents back.”

But Frazier said he was glad that the proposed budget didn’t cut county staff or salary increases, an opinion he shared with Wantz.

“The upcoming budget includes a 3% salary increase and in addition to that a 1% bonus for the incredible amount of work our staff does,” Wantz said in an interview. “That was a great thing.”

Wantz said he was also pleased that the budget included $60,000 for infrastructure project planning software for the department of public works after having cut funds for road maintenance and other aspects of the department; $45,000 for breathing apparatus for the Lineboro volunteer fire company; and $5,000 in one-time funding for the Union Mills Homestead, which was washed out of its major annual fundraising activities in 2018 due to heavy rains, Wantz noted.

Wantz was also pleased at a 4-1 vote Tuesday, with Bouchat voting against, which added $420,000 to the budget to continue funding the design and construction planning for Charles Carroll Community Center, to be built on the site of the former Charles Carroll Elementary School.

And Wantz and Frazier were pleased with the amount of additional funding the board was able to provide for Carroll County Public Schools: $3.9 million more than FY19, or about $196 million in total, according to Zaleski.

As was discussed in the board’s Tuesday morning session, Carroll County Public Schools is requesting an increase of $5 million from FY19, but with Gov. Larry Hogan contributing $2.7 million in the state budget, and another $4.6 million due to changes in funding formulas by the Kirwan Commission, Frazier said, “schools are going to come pretty close to what they asked for.”

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, expressed it more strongly during the morning work session.

“They shouldn’t be complaining about anything — this should be a good news story.”

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