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Gordon: Westminster’s improved transparency to be commended, budget talks worth watching

Over 30 million people nationally have filed for unemployment relating to COVID-19 in the past six weeks. Maryland is seeing unprecedented numbers with over 380,000 residents having filed for unemployment claims since March. Currently, the state of Maryland is projecting over a $2.8 billion deficit due to the pandemic.

Economists are noting that the unemployment rate in April could potentially reach 20%. This number would be the second-highest unemployment rate in history, second only to the Great Depression rate of 25%.

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On the county level, our county commissioners have been faced with tough decisions which are affected by the loss of funds from the state and increases in unemployment. The Board of Commissioners approved a $417.6 million proposed operating budget for FY2021 with no tax increase proposed. Kudos to the county commissioners and Jack Lyburn and his staff in Economic Development for assisting local business during this crisis. The county created a Small Business COVID-19 Emergency Relief Grant Fund that is sending out 674 grant checks out to businesses; with total grants of $843,000.

While COVID-19 has created countless hardships, positive changes have emerged.

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Technology is being consistently embraced due to social distancing. Westminster government is now offering council, budget, and committee meetings online. In March of 2017, I wrote an article after requesting the city council offer additional transparency and accessibility to the constituents that they serve. Currently, the city has moved their meetings online, hopefully this accessibility and transparency will remain after the pandemic. I would strongly recommend anyone who has an interest to follow Westminster’s meetings hosted on their Facebook page.

Currently, the city of Westminster is in the midst of budget discussions. The city budget includes five funds; General, Water, Sewer, Fiber, and Capital Projects. The combined revenue of all the funds total $62.2 million with total expenditures of $65.5 million which creates a discrepancy of $3.3 million.

Weeks ago, Mayor Joe Dominick proactively decided to temporarily close the city’s fitness center prior to the governor’s mandate in concern of COVID-19. His decision was one we can all be thankful for. As the city reviews the proposed budget, the family fitness center is in need of analysis. The majority of the memberships are non-Westminster residents and the family fitness center promotes an operating deficit from 2014-20 for a total loss of $1,791,155. This total includes a projected operating deficit of $209,437 for fiscal year 2021. The Family Fitness Center is currently listed in the FY21 budget to have capital projects costing $90,000. This is to replace equipment and for a shower room renovation.

Given the availability of numerous fitness options in the community should the city be competing in a business that private industry does more effectively? Now would be the ideal time for city to exercise fiscal fitness and close the Westminster Fitness Center permanently during COVID-19. This would stop the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars that could be better utilized elsewhere.

The Westminster City Council’s proposed budget also includes an adjustment to the constant yield rate. A notice of the increase was published in the April 14 Carroll County Times. The constant yield tax rate .5425 per $100 is proposed to increase to .56 per $100 and generate $329,223 from this tax increase.

At a time when our Main Street is closed, businesses are shuttered, employees are unemployed and some may not return after the pandemic. A property assessed at $350,000 would see an increase of $61.25. In typical times that amount might not seem like a significant amount of money to some however, we are not living in typical times.

For those interested in learning more about the Westminster FY21 budget you can livestream upcoming discussions. The the second budget public hearing and budget work session is scheduled for May 4, at 5:30 p.m. Adoption of the budget ordinance is set for May 11 at 7 p.m.

Anyone with comments, opinions, or input regarding the budget can email the city clerk at SVisocsky@westgov.com. Comments relating to the budget should be submitted by May 4 for review prior to the adoption of the budget.

Tom Gordon writes from Westminster. He writes every other Saturday. Email him at tgordonwrites@gmail.com.

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