SNOW HILL – With a maintenance of effort budget in the offing, speakers at the annual Worcester County public budget hearing made sure the County Commissioners were put on notice that a legal minimum schools budget would not be acceptable once the economy improves.
“The continual cuts cannot be made … it will eventually result in a disastrous decline in our school system,” said teacher Terry Springle, head of the Worcester County Teachers Association.
“We hope that you recognize that maintenance of effort over the long run will leave our kids behind,” said parent Michelle Schachter, representing the Berlin Intermediate School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC).
Schools in Maryland are legally required to provide maintenance of effort level funding, the same amount per student as the year before.
“Costs continue to rise,” said Marilyn James, chair of the Ocean City Elementary School SIAC. “We as a school system will not be able to able to survive on a maintenance of effort budget.”
“Next year will be virtually impossible without additional funding for education,” said Heather Gladding of the Pocomoke Elementary School SIAC.
Most speakers on education expressed thanks to the commissioners for their support of the school system, which regularly equals or tops 50 percent of Worcester County’s entire budget. The county provides 75 percent of the county schools’ overall budget.
This year, the school system expects $460,000 less from Worcester County, which will be offset by an increase of $560,000 from the state.
The dilemma for the school system centers on increased fixed business costs, such as utilities, estimated to increase by $1.2 million.
“We recognize these are very tough economic times. We recognize you are facing some very tough choices,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes.
Ellie Dieglemann offered, she said, an unpopular but necessary alternative perspective, and questioned why the commissioners had not applied for a maintenance of effort waiver.
The county did not apply for the waiver because officials and staff knew such a waiver would not be granted, said commission President Bud Church.
The county represents taxpayers, Dieglemann said, and should have considered the cost to them. “On our behalf you should have filed the application,” said Dieglemann.
The Board of Education should also have been required to cut their budgets by the same percent as the county government departments, Dieglemann said.
“No amount is ever sufficient for the Board of Education,” said Dieglemann.
The school board should have imposed furlough days to save taxpayer money, she said.
Teachers and staff will not receive any raises this year, Springle noted.
“We agreed to this so we could avoid furloughs or reductions to staff,” said Springle. School staff union contracts reflect significant cuts this year, he said.
When the economy starts to return to normal, Springle asked the commissioners to remember their “dedicated employees.”
Social service non-profits also had the chance to have their say Tuesday night.
Rev. George Tasker, representing Samaritan Shelter in Pocomoke, asked that the commissioners continue to support homeless shelters in the county. Last year, county funding to the shelter was cut some, he noted.
“We appreciate you didn’t cut us clean out. We’re hoping you would do the same thing this year,” Tasker said.
Several representatives of Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services (WYFCS) described their work and read letters from grateful clients.
When public services are not available, private assistance must bridge the gap, said WYFC Executive Director Theresa Fields said. The organization is a single-point community service center available to help anyone.
“Any loss of county funding will have a devastating impact on services we provide next year,” said Fields.
During low points in the organization’s history, “the one thing that has remained as our rock is your funding,” she said.
Joan Feeney, chief financial officer for the Worcester County Developmental Center, asked the commissioners to fully fund the center’s budget request. Since 2009, the center’s operating funds from the county have been reduced almost 40 percent, she said, and the capital grant eliminated.
Brenda Dingwall, executive director of Camp Agape, a year-round, shore-wide program for children of incarcerated prisoners that seeks to break the cycle of imprisonment, asked the commissioners to consider contributing $10,000 to the organization. All county governments on the shore will be asked for the same amount.
Some county departments came under public scrutiny. Harold Scrimgeour asked the commissioners to decrease regulations on business in the county to make things easier on entrepreneurs.
“This is the hardest county to do business in,” said Scrimgeour.
The county spends roughly $200,000 per public school student over 12 years of education, Scrimgeour said.
“Then our community lets them down. We don’t provide economic development, jobs or affordable housing,” said Scrimgeour.
Scrimgeour, who ran for commissioner in 2006, also pushed for the reorganization of the Development Review and Permitting department and the Worcester County Planning Commission, saying those organizations are anti-growth.
“You need to encourage growth. You need to make changes at the top,” Scrimgeour said.
Some aspects of Development Review and Permitting could be privatized to save money, Dieglemann said.
Dieglemann also suggested eliminating the county’s Economic Development Department, since she feels its work is being duplicated elsewhere in county government.
“I’m thinking perhaps it may have outlived its usefulness entirely,” said Dieglemann.
“I would hope that you would seriously consider the impact of that agency,” said Tommy Tucker, especially during the current economic crisis.
“More than ever we need to look at affordable housing, number one. We need to look at ways of increasing the tax base,” Tucker said.
With a larger tax base, agencies will not have to come to the county hat in hand, he said. Economic development is an important piece of the puzzle, he said.
John Medlin asked that security at county government buildings be reduced.
“It makes me think the terrorists have won. Why are we so afraid that people can’t act normally?” Medlin asked. He also suggested increasing the room tax from 4.5 percent to 5 percent.
Lorraine Purnell Ayres asked the commissioners to look into the impact renting out jail cells to jurisdictions with no room to incarcerate prisoners on the jail budget provided by the county government.
“Can we reduce that in some way with the increase coming in?” Ayres asked.
An unexpected request came from Don Goletz, president of Vendomatic, a company out of Frederick that places gumball machines in stores across the Mid-Atlantic, including Worcester County. Goletz asked the commissioners to look at the licensing fees charged per coin mechanism.
Gumball machines cost Vendomatic $25 to $30 per year in Worcester County. Each machine makes about $16 per month. The yearly fee costs about 17 percent of each machine’s earnings. He asked for a reduction or elimination of the licensing fees, or perhaps a discount for multiple machines.
“No other county in the state of Maryland has a licensing fee,” said Goletz.