After over two months of requests, deliberations and hearings, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to approve a $508 million budget balanced without increasing tax rates.
Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, cast the dissenting vote on the fiscal year 2016 budget; he also voted against the previous three county budgets.
The total budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, is almost $508 million. The largest contributors to revenue are property taxes, income tax, charges for service, inter fund transfers and intergovernmental funds, which account for about 83 percent of all anticipated revenue.
Of the $508 million in planned spending, almost $380 million is covered in the county's General Fund and about $53 million in the Capital Fund, equating to about 85 percent of the total budget.
Of the $380 million in the General Fund, $169.5 million has been appropriated for Carroll County Public Schools.
The balance of the spending plan approved by the commissioners — totaling roughly $75 million — is money in funds that are self supported by dedicated fees, charges and assessments. These self-supported funds include water and sewer operations, which are supported by water and sewer user charges, as well as funds for the county airport, a fiberoptics network operation and the solid waste management operation. Also included are various employee benefits programs. Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he was pleased with the budget that the board and county staff prepared despite facing serious funding limitations.
During the board's meetings with county agencies and allied organizations in March and April, requests totaling about $25 million were made, but the county was only expecting about $10 million in additional revenue from its eight largest revenue sources.
"[The budget is] the best we could do with the financial restraints we were under," Frazier said. "I don't see how we could do anything differently."
Rothschild said he voted against the budget because estimations on revenues and expenditures through 2021 carry a "risk profile that exceeds my comfort levels," he said.
"In order to properly balance the budget in future years, the county must see a 3 percent annual growth in revenues, and that's not guaranteed," Rothschild.
Rothschild also said he believes the level of funding allocated for the public school system enabled the Board of Education to "institutionalize inefficiencies," he said.
"There's a saying: The greatest threat to an organization is too many years of uninterrupted success because a shortage of money forces organizations to re-engineer themselves in order to operate more efficiently," Rothschild said.
The commissioners used more than $8 million in one-time funds to grant several ongoing funding requests, including increasing the county's contribution to the school system and funding levels to the nonprofits supported by Carroll government. This one-time money was made up of a surplus from FY15 and funds accumulated in the cable franchise fee fund that had gone unspent in previous years.
Frazier said he has concerns about how the commissioners will plug future funding gaps, so he suggested during budget review sessions an increase to the county's real estate tax rate.
"We plugged a lot of expenses with one-time money," Frazier said. "We aren't projected to have anywhere near that amount of surplus in the next two years. There's no such thing as a free lunch, and we can't expect to get anything without paying for it."
The coming year's budget will keep the county's real property rate fixed at $1.018 per $100 of assessed value.
Each year, the state conducts a reassessment of property values, and if increased assessments would result in a revenue increase for local jurisdictions, the county is required to hold a public hearing, said Ted Zaleski, director of the Department of Management and Budget. The county did so last Thursday and received no public comment.
Carroll's assessable base will increase by 0.3 percent in fiscal year 2016 beginning July 1, resulting in $526,865 of new property tax revenue. To take in the same amount of revenue in the coming year as was expected in the current year, the county would have been required to lower its real estate tax rate to $1.0151 per $100.
The rates for two other major tax revenue sources — personal property tax and income tax — will remain the same at $2.515 per $100 of assessed value, and 3.03 percent of income, respectively.
Cable fee action
The Carroll County Board of Commissioners signed an ordinance Tuesday that made official their vote to unrestrict funds accumulated in the cable franchise fee fund.
The board voted 4-1 to do so in April to free up money they used to meet funding requests from nine of the 11 nonprofits that receive the county's financial support. Rothschild opposed the decision, as well as the signing of the ordinance.
"I've been hearing a lot of pain from [the Community Media Center]," Rothschild said Tuesday. "They are still operating with analog equipment in a world moving to digital. I could support this if a portion went back to CMC, but the fact that we didn't, I'll have to respectfully vote against it."
As part of the county's agreement with Comcast, a portion of all collected fees goes to Carroll government. The decision unrestricts three-fifths of the revenue from the franchise fee, which had previously been used to fund the Community Media Center, the Carroll Cable Regulatory Commission, the county's video/audio productions office and other organizations.
About $2 million had accumulated over the past few years. The remaining two-fifths of revenue from the franchise agreement will continue to be appropriated for the Community Media Center.