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‘It’s very unusual’: 5 things you need to know about Carroll County’s proposed budget

It’s not often that Carroll County’s proposed budget is smaller than the previous year’s.

At $417.6 million, the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget is $1.2 million less than the fiscal year 2020 budget, with no tax increase. Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget for the county, said this might be the third time since 1990 that the Board of County Commissioners has proposed a budget smaller than the year prior.

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“It’s very unusual,” he said in an interview.

While the economic ripple effects from the coronavirus pandemic have shaken up the budget process, Zaleski had concerns before the health crisis began. At Thursday’s board meeting, held via a video conferencing platform, he unveiled the proposed budget to the public.

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He set the stage by reminding those watching online that the county never fully recovered from the Great Recession.

“For a long time now we’ve been struggling just to keep up with the things that we’re doing,” he said. “We entered this budget process, before [COVID-19], with concerns.”

Since fiscal year 2010, the county has experienced average growth of 1.5% per year, according to Zaleski.

Now he’s predicting the county could lose $4 million per month if shutdowns related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, persist.

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With this in mind, the commissioners asked the budget office for a proposed fiscal year 2021 operating budget that was flat from FY20. From there, the commissioners formed the budget, which is available to view on the county website.

In lieu of his usual visits to local libraries for budget presentations, Zaleski will hold a virtual community meeting May 5 at 7 p.m. A public hearing will be held May 12 at 7 p.m. The budget adoption is planned for May 28 at 10 a.m.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the budget talks.

CCPS would gain revenue, but less than was planned

Carroll County was planning to give public schools a boost of $6 million next year, Zaleski said, but that was before COVID-19 struck. The county has since had to reconsider its revenue projections.

Instead, Carroll County Public Schools would receive an increase of $1.2 million, for $198.4 million annually. That is to meet the maintenance of effort amount required by law.

Money is still set aside in capital project funding for the Carroll County Career and Technology Center expansion and the replacement of East Middle School in Westminster.

The county’s 2021 to 2026 plan allocates $74.7 million for the Career and Technology Center and $69.2 million for East Middle, according to Zaleski.

Ag preservation to be cut

Carroll County’s goal to preserve 100,000 acres of farmland might take a little longer to achieve than planned.

The commissioners are proposing to cut a half-million dollars annually to the agricultural land preservation program, giving it $2.5 million per year.

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, voted in favor of the cut when the board first proposed supplementing it with a $5 million bond. However, when his colleagues later decided the savings the bond would provide wasn’t worth it, they voted, 4-1, to pull the bond, with Weaver opposed.

“You are attacking an area that is very fragile at the present time,” he said. “You may see a folding of a lot of agriculture at the end of this year due to what’s happening in this pandemic. ... You have dairy farmers dumping milk right now.”

Even with the proposed cut, Zaleski said Thursday there is still “significant funding” going to the program. The county issues bonds of $1.3 million per year for the program, it benefits from an agriculture transfer tax and the state contributes funding, he said.

A growing problem with solid waste

Although the commissioners have proposed an increased tipping fee at Northern Landfill in Westminster, a new recycling fee and eliminating landfill coupons, that won’t improve the solid waste budget, according to Zaleski.

These changes, if adopted in the final budget, would equate to a 16.4% increase in the solid waste enterprise fund, or an additional $9.4 million, Zaleski said. However, when the commissioners made this change they also proposed to reduce the general fund transfer to the solid waste fund by the amount of those revenue increases. This action would improve the overall budget’s bottom line but does nothing to benefit solid waste’s budget.

A deficit is building in the solid waste fund, as recycling costs have increased.

“What used to be a revenue to us is now a growing cost,” Zaleski said.

The proposed budget does not address the growing deficit in the solid waste fund. Zaleski said it is a problem that will have to be dealt with eventually.

Fee increases on the horizon

Trying to recoup some of the money spent to provide services, the commissioners are proposing to increase certain fees related to development review.

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. Those are development review, engineering, stormwater management, floodplain management and forest conservation.

The county’s current fee structure was set in 1995, according to Devilbiss, and the fees charged come nowhere close to covering the cost incurred by the county to provide those services.

About $568,000 in salaries alone is spent in the development review process, Devilbiss said at an April 2 budget meeting. Fees recouped an average of 40% spent to provide these services in fiscal years 2018 and 2019, he said.

The commissioners voted, 4-1, to increase existing development review-related fees to recoup the entire cost of salaries spent to provide services. The change would bring in $342,000 annually and would increase as salaries rise.

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 then said.

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It’s not over

While the commissioners are prepared to adopt the budget by the end of May, they recognize much could change in the coming months.

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Weaver said the budget process has been like “Jell-O in your hands."

Hoping that a more solid understanding of the pandemic’s effects will come in the next few months, the commissioners said Thursday they would like to revisit the budget in the fall.

The plan is to adopt a budget May 28, but it can always be modified after that date.

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