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‘Very bare-bones’ Bel Air draft budget would raise property taxes by 4 cents; first increase since 2004

Citing rising insurance premiums and falling revenues, Bel Air Town Administrator Jesse Bane unveiled a proposed 4-cent tax rate increase in his draft budget for fiscal year 2022 at a Monday meeting of the Board of Town Commissioners. If approved, it would be the first tax increase in town in almost two decades.

Monday’s presentation was just the beginning of the weeks-long process of approving a budget, including multiple work sessions and public hearings before the board votes on the final product. The budget must be adopted before June 1, and the next fiscal year begins July 1.

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Town Administrator Jesse Bane hinted at a previous work session of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners that tax increases could be included in the upcoming draft budget to maintain the level of town services Bel Air residents expect. Taxes have not been raised in Bel Air since 2004, Bane said; that last tax increase was 6 cents per $100 of assessed value across real and personal property, he said.

Bane said he took no pleasure increasing taxes, and gave it much thought, but had to propose a responsible budget.

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“I find it necessary to propose a budget for FY22 tentatively providing for tax rates of 54 cents and $1.20 per $100 of assessable value of real and personal property subject to taxation, over and above the current rate of 50 cents and $1.16 respectively,” Bane said. “Ultimately you as commissioners will determine what will be our budget for the next fiscal year.”

Every three of those four cents will pay for debt on a proposed expansion of the town hall police building, and every one cent of the four will be dedicated to the general fund for various purposes. Every one-cent increase to the tax rate realizes $154,000 in total revenue for the town, Bane said.

Director of Finance for the town Lisa Moody said the police station expansion was expected to cost approximately $10 million. If the project is approved by the Board of Town Commissioners in August, ground would be broken in September.

The draft budget is estimated to be more than $15.1 million this coming fiscal year — an expected increase of about $836,700 from the current fiscal year, Moody said.

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Highway user revenues have declined for the second year in a row, Bane said. Harford County’s tax rebate given to the town has also decreased, as has interest on the town’s investments. Beyond that, medical insurance premiums have increased 14.2%, and dental insurance premiums rose 15.1%, he said, among other expenses.

The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation is also expecting a possibility of lower assessments of commercial property based on income reductions from the COVID-19 pandemic, which could translate to a loss for the town.

COVID, the opioid crisis and the town’s water and sewer bills also played a role in the town’s financial situation, but Bane said he would confine discussion of those issues to future meetings on the budget.

“Please know, to bring this proposed budget to you, $747,000 was cut from this year’s initial requested costs of personnel, capital and general fund expenses,” Bane said.

The proposed budget would also fund a construction worker position that had to be cut from the budget during the 2008 recession, and another position in the police department to manage its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program — funded by a three-year grant and the elimination of two part-time positions in the department, Bane said.

The LEAD program works to divert low-level offenders suffering from substance abuse issues from the traditional criminal justice track of jail and prosecution and direct them toward treatment and support services.

The town is also waiting for guidance on how it can spend about $8.4 from the federal government, part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed in March.

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