Commissioners divided on tax hikes to help schools

The Board of Commissioners began its budget deliberations Tuesday with talk on how to solve funding problems in the county school system, including a discussion on what effect increasing tax rates could have on meeting the schools' needs.

Even with taxes increased to levels last seen before the recession — an increase of about $7 million — the commissioners said they would still struggle to fully fund the Board of Education's request without running into a deficit in future years.


At the start of the meeting, each commissioner described his own priorities in determining the county budget. All five agreed on school funding being the county's most pressing issue.

Carroll County Public Schools has been experiencing declining enrollment coupled with declining state funding.


The Board of Education has requested $185.2 million from the county, an increase of $9 million over last year's budget and $7.55 million more than had been in the county commissioners' plan for school spending.

Commissioners Richard Weaver, R-District 2, and Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said they wanted the Board of Commissioners to think outside of the logic that has prevailed in county government over the past several years.

"If you really care about something, you make it happen," Weaver said in his address to the commissioners at the start of the deliberations. "There's no degrees of caring."

"I think we've spent years making political statements, and this is about the people of the county," he said.

Frazier agreed, urging the board to fund the school system's request in full.

"If we have to increase taxes to do this, I don't know, but I want it on the table," he said. "If it's necessary, then we have to invest money into ourselves."

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, said he was hesitant to consider changes to the tax rate.

"I will not raise taxes to put a Band-Aid on a problem that we're going to revisit next year and have the same set of problems in front of us," he said.

Commissioners Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, and Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said they were not prepared to discuss any increases to taxes.

The commissioners spent much of the afternoon discussing two ideas proposed by Howard, who expressed frustration about the county's situation.

The county, he said, is being expected to make up for shortcomings at the state level.

"I don't think we can cut our way out of the problem; I don't think we can tax our way out of the problem," Howard said.


Instead, he suggested the county develop a formula by which it can determine how much money to budget for CCPS by including enough money to fund the things the Board of Commissioners deem most necessary based on input from the school board.

"Do you know what the formula is now?" Howard asked. " 'And anything else we need.' That's the formula right now."

For example, he said, the commissioners could decide to commit to providing the school system with the money needed to give a 4 percent raise to teachers with five years' experience or less, a 3 percent raise to all teachers, a 2 percent raise to support staff, and a 1 percent raise to administrative and Central Office personnel. Committing to that formula, he said, would cost the county about $5.2 million more than what has been planned for CCPS this year but would be significantly less difficult than filling the school board's full increase request of $7.55 million more than has been planned.

Howard also suggested the commissioners find a way to allow the $4 million in stop-gap funding from the state to be treated by the school system as ongoing money, a suggestion he originally made last month as the budget process began.

He proposed spreading the $4 million out over the course of four years and including a yearly county match to the funds.

Rothschild suggested using some of the $4 million to help pay for the decommissioning of the three schools that will close at the end of the current school year.

For all of the effort and money the commissioners can put into schools, Rothschild said, the school system needs to do more.

The Board of Commissioners looked at plans that involved the school system closing an additional two schools, but Rothschild argued that CCPS needs to look at cutting staff as well.

School officials have said that the closure of the three schools will come without any layoffs.

"I think it's time to move beyond wishful thinking to reality," Rothschild said.

CCPS, he said, has a teacher-to-student ratio that is lower than both Baltimore and Frederick counties, where average teacher salaries are higher. The only realistic options, he said, involve more operational cost cutting.

"There's no other way out of this bear trap," he said. "They have got to downsize."

Weaver warned the commissioners against doing what he said could be too little for the school system.

"You get what you pay for, and if you want top-quality teachers you are going to have to pay for it," he said. "If we don't, I think this is the year you're going to see things crack and fall apart."

Weaver and Frazier said they wanted to figure out long-term plans for the school system but were hesitant about imposing one on the system this year.

The fact that the school system is already into contract negotiations with unions makes any discussion about school funding difficult, Frazier said.

The board also addressed Carroll Community College funding on Tuesday, tentatively moving to include $500,000 in its proposed budget for salary increases for employees while rejecting a motion to include recurring money for technology replacements.

The board also approved a motion to include $300,000 in one-time money for technology replacements at the public library.

A motion was also approved to factor a 3 percent raise for some county employees into the proposed budget.

Decisions made during the deliberation process are not binding and can be revisited as the process continues.

The commissioners will meet again at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Reagan Room of the County Office Building, 225 N. Center St. in Westminster, for further budget deliberations.



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