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$15 million proposed Bel Air budget includes first tax increase since 2004 to help pay for police station

Bel Air’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year cracked $15.1 million — an approximately $836,000 increase from the year before, according to a presentation of the tentative budget made Monday. The tentative fiscal year 2022 budget includes a 4-cent property tax increase, the town’s first in almost two decades.

The increase would take Bel Air’s personal property tax for business to $1.20 per $100 of assessable value and its real property tax for residences to 54 cents per $100 of assessed value.

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Three-quarters of the revenue generated by raising taxes would pay for debt service on a proposed expansion of the town’s police station, which is part of Bel Air’s town hall building. Debt service for the police department expansion is $462,000, according to the tentative budget. That project is part of the capital budget.

Remaining revenues generated by the tax increase would be dedicated to the general fund for various purposes. Every penny increase to the tax rate realizes $154,000 in total revenue for the town, Town Administrator Jesse Bane said.

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Taxes have not been raised in Bel Air since 2004, Bane said; that last tax increase was 6 cents per $100 of assessed value, he said.

The roughly $10 million expansion of Bel Air’s police station has been discussed for years. Public meetings have been held on it and Director of Planning Kevin Small said it has to be addressed. The police department has outgrown its space, and the facility has some electrical and water-intrusion issues, according to a 2019 report on the building.

“The size of the police department plus the condition of the [facility] … it just cannot be ignored,” Small said.

Monday’s meeting was the first of two public hearings on the budget; the next one is scheduled for May 17, Director of Finance Lisa Moody said. The Board of Commissioners must adopt the final budget before June 1. Fiscal year 2022 begins July 1.

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Public safety accounted for 38% of the general fund budget, and public works is 28.6%, Moody told the commissioners. General government made up about 22% of the general fund expenditures, encompassing finance, legal, planning and zoning and other governmental services.

The town would also add two new positions — one for a construction worker within the public works department and another within the police department to manage its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which directs low-level, non-violent drug offenders toward treatment instead of routing them through the justice system. The police position is partially funded by a three-year grant.

The proposed budget also funds new police and civilian salary scales, which is anticipated to cost about $359,000. An approximately $252,000 merit-based increase for staff is also on the table.

Overall, salaries would increase by nearly $945,000 under the tentative budget, but that is proportional with the town’s past salary expenses. In the current fiscal year, salaries accounted for 67% of the general fund. Under the proposed budget for next fiscal year, they would account for 67.2%.

One of the loudest voices in opposition to the tax increase and police station expansion at the Monday meeting was town resident Justus Eapen, who decried the proposed expansion’s design as “soviet.” He said he had no objection to giving the police department what it needed; his complaint was more aesthetic, he said.

“Future residents, our children, are going to have to deal with this building,” he said.

He also said he did not wish to see his taxes increase, and excoriated the board for a perceived lack of backbone, leading to some testy exchanges with the commissioners.

“It is apparent that there is not a courageous person in this room,” Eapen said.

“Well, welcome to the first meeting that you have ever attended,” commissioner Patrick Richards responded. “You are welcome to attend any of our work session meetings.”

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