County Comment: County commissioners take 2012 budgets to public hearing

County Comment
County commissioners take 2012 budgets to public hearing
By Norman Bassett, Public Information Officer

The Washington County Board of County Commissioners took the Fiscal Year 2012 Operating and Capital Budget proposals to Public Hearing on Thursday, May 12th at 7pm in Hager Hall convention center in Hagerstown, in order to allow citizens to voice opinions on the fiscal plan.
More than 130 people attended, and over 40 signed up to give testimony on the budgets, balanced at a total of $292.6 million.
County Administrator Greg Murray outlined the revenue and expenditures for the coming Fiscal Year that begins on July 1st, 2011, citing the County's continuing reduction in operating expenses while maintaining the same property tax rate it has held since 2001, 94.8 cents per $100 of full assessed value.
Murray broke down the budget by General Operations and Capital Improvements. The General Fund (operations) was reduced by $895,230 or -.45% from 2011 levels with a total of $196.25 million. The Capital Improvement Projects budget, which pays for road repairs, bridges and other infrastructure projects, saw a reduction of 5.27% from the FY 2011 total, down by $2.86 million for a total of $51.4 million.
The combined budget total for the coming fiscal year, $292.6 million, including enterprise funds and debt service, reflected a reduction of $2.71 million or minus .92 percent.
Washington County dealt with a reduction of some $34 million in State cuts and other revenue reductions including a decline in income taxes of $8 million, Highway User Revenues of about $7.8 million and Real Estate taxes of $5 million.
Major challenges to the FY '12 budget include the Unemployment Rate, which Murray said will decrease slowly, causing continued decrease in the Income Tax revenue budget. As unemployment drops, revenue will slowly improve. The County will be mandated to prove 90% of state costs for the local Property Assessment Office for two years, and 50% thereafter, with total additional cost to Washington County of $914,000.
The Housing Market is expected to improve, with indicators starting to show upward trends. Property assessments, which had been on an upward spiral, have come down, with the last large decrease in re-assessment in 2011.
Although the County has once again reduced its numbers of personnel and operating expenses by department, employment costs have risen due to increases in health care costs.
The largest budget categories are Education, Public Safety and Capital expenditures.
Funding for all Education programs is slated to be $104.3 million, an increase of $241,520 or .23%. That level preserves Board of Education maintenance of effort of $1.1 million.
Public Safety - police, fire and emergency medical services is proposed at $35.3 million, an increase of $832,390 or 2.41%. Reasons for that increase were given as expenses for Workers Compensation for volunteer Fire and Rescue workers, with new participant requirements of $308,000; First year operating costs of $400,000 is needed for the new radio communication system; and increases for inmate medical and food costs of $52,000.
Spending for Capital; Projects decreased by $2.7 million, a reduction of $1.78 million from the previous level or 39.67% decrease. The Capital Projects Program maintains the Free Library renovation and reconstruction and funding for a Senior Center.
Washington County maintains the lowest government spending per capita of all 23 Maryland Counties, while continuing to provide adequate services and programs to its citizens, due to sound fiscal management planning, Murray said.
All three major bond rating agencies have given Washington County high marks for its conservative fiscal plan, resulting in low interest rates on the necessary borrowing levels.
Over half of the tax dollar funds Education in Washington County, with Public Safety accounting for the next largest amount. Operating funds, those that keep County Government running, amount to only $18 million of the total $292 million budget, Murray said.
Issues and Initiatives for the upcoming fiscal year include the possibility that the State will mandate that Counties take over part of the Maryland government employee pension system. Creation and retention of jobs in the County, continued support for economic development, federal and state mandates and environmental regulations are other areas the County is monitoring closely, Murray said.
Of the more than 40 citizens signed up to speak at the Public Hearing, the majority testified in support of the Senior Center. Other testimony involved road construction plans in the Mount Aetna Farms area, support for the Washington County Free Library and its branches, and road conditions in South County.
The Commissioners will evaluate citizen comments and continue to accept written public input prior to final budget approval, later in May.