County must close $7 million 2012 budget gap

Collins still proposes giving employees raises

Friday, April 29, 2011

A $7 million budget gap remains to be closed before the Charles County commissioners can approve a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, county staff explained Tuesday.

The county is required to enact a balanced budget each year.

A decline in revenue from property tax as assessments fall is a major culprit for the deficit, County Administrator Rebecca Bridgett and Fiscal and Administrative Services Director Deborah Hudson said, followed by state government decisions to pass liabilities on to counties while cutting local spending.

For instance, the county has lost 97 percent of the revenue from the highway user portion of the gasoline tax for transportation spending previously received from the State Highway Administration during the current fiscal year, which ends in July.

"We don't receive very much funding at all from the state anymore," Hudson said.

The county also will be picking up all expenses related to running the Crain Memorial Welcome Center on U.S. 301 near the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Newburg, as the state has declined to fund it.

During the current fiscal year, the county contributed 50 percent of the needed money, about $50,000; to keep it open in fiscal 2012, staff suggested spending $75,000 of county money, which will require some cuts in service there, Budget Chief David Eicholtz said.

"We're just doing it a little less than we thought this year," he said.

The situation is likely to get worse. It is "inevitable" that the state will ultimately pass on the costs of public school teacher pension plans as well, Hudson said, something county governments have dreaded for years.

"They've been knocking on the door. … At one point they're going to pound down the door and pass on teacher retirement to the county because it keeps coming up as an issue," she said.

At $300 million total projected for the fiscal 2012 budget, the total revenue decline from last year is about 1.7 percent, while the county's operating expenses are projected to rise by six-tenths of a percent to $307 million, Hudson said. Staff suggested delaying some debt service payments to slow the increase, but the payments will have to be made eventually.

The proposed budget also again suggests freezing most employee pay, eschewing cost-of-living, merit and scheduled increases.

At least one member of the board has signaled that he will not go along with that.

In an interview, Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said he hopes to boost employee salaries and benefits, despite the shortfall, because they have suffered enough. He isn't sure yet where the county will find the money to plug the gap.

"I'm not sure. We still have a few sessions and I think we'll have more opportunities to ask more critical questions about where, if there's any [room for cuts]," Collins said.

"The first layer is they're telling us, essentially, we're down to the bone, but we're going to have to obviously ask more questions and have to make solid decisions."

The board got its first public feedback on the budget Wednesday evening at a public forum, when a constituent came by to applaud them for revoking funding for the planned cross-county connector road after watching the budget discussion on television.

"I just wanted to thank all of you for being fiscally responsible and curtailing the unnecessary expenses relating to the cross-county connector," Nancy Delaplane of La Plata said.

Whistleblower protections enacted

On Wednesday, the commissioners approved a revision to the county's standard operating procedures providing protection from retaliation and harassment to employee whistleblowers, including temporary workers.

The protections extend to workers who raise the alarm about violations of law, gross mismanagement, misuse of funds, abuse of authority and dangers to public health and safety, and "will provide employees with protections greater than currently exist within the state of Maryland," Deputy County Attorney Sue Greer said.

The change allows employees to file formal complaints directly with the county administrator, anonymously if they prefer, and protects them unless they make false claims "with gross disregard for the truth," Greer said.

"Of all the standard operating procedures … this is probably the most important. If we're going to be the transparent government we've promised we need to have a whistleblower policy," said Commissioner Ken Robinson (D).

‘Young hero' honored

Madison Davis, 7, got to sit in one of the enormous red leather commissioners' chairs Wednesday, her head barely poking above their desk, as she was honored Wednesday as a "young hero" for calling 911 after her mother collapsed in their Waldorf home on March 6.

Before giving the girl a plaque and a stuffed bald eagle, the commissioners played a recording of the call where Madison, sounding worried but calm, told a dispatcher that "my mom is having a seizure" and that "she gives me some stuff to remember" to do if it happens. She stayed on the phone until the ambulance arrived, as the dispatcher instructed.

"You're a lucky lady," Robinson told Madison's mother, Sophia, who attended the ceremony with her child.