By Vernon Gray
Commentary on the News
On May 28 the board of county commissioners adopted the 2014 county budget, which was opposed by only Commissioner Larry Jarboe. Notably, the County has $7.9 million in uncommitted, discretionary funds.
I publicly suggested that the county commissioners should give some of it back in tax relief. They could have adopted the Constant Yield Tax Rate to offset increased property tax assessments. They could have adopted long-term property tax relief by reducing the Homestead Tax Credit cap on the annual rate of assessment increases. They could have reduced the eligibility age for the Senior Tax Credit from 70 to 65 years. They could have reduced or eliminated the energy taxes on electricity, fuel oil, liquefied petroleum, and natural gas. Tax relief was entirely feasible.
Instead of tax relief the board approved salary increases for county employees at an additional cost of $3.4 million. At a time that the pay of Federal employees and defense contractors is being reduced by sequestration furlough days; Maryland state employees’ pay is reduced by five Service Reduction Days a year; private sector wages and benefits are stagnated; and, local unemployment is approximately 6 percent, why should there be pay increases for county employees, especially highly paid department heads with salaries over $100,000 a year?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Cost Index,” compensation costs for state and local government workers increased 1.9 percent for the 12-month period ending March 2013. So, what justifies a 6.2 percent increase in the total cost of county employees’ salaries?
In the last eight years county employees received step increases in six years and cost-of-living allowance increases totaling 16 percent. School employees received step increases in five of eight years and COLA increases totaling 19.3 percent.
Instead of tax relief they gifted $1.3 million to 25 independent non-profit agencies. This practice of the political gift-giving of public money should be replaced with grant awards through a formal process that includes justification and accountability for the use of the funds.
Of particular note in the budget process, at the instigation of Commissioner Todd Morgan, a past president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, the board approved spending $75,000 to have the Navy Alliance perform a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats (SWOT) economic study, in addition to the $25,000 gifted to the Navy Alliance. Why?
According to IRS Form 990 data, the Navy Alliance has assets of $450,051 and income of $190,946. According to the St. Mary’s County Procurement Manual, Section 5-3, the Noncompetitive Procurement of services “may be appropriate in those instances when the requirement is beyond the capabilities of the County,” but will not be approved if “regular County employees are readily available and able to perform the services requested.” Are we to believe that the Department of Economic & Community Development (DECD), with a budget of $1.6 million and nine employees including a director paid $116,226, is not readily available and capable of performing the SWOT study? Why couldn’t the SWOT study be conducted by the DECD and citizen groups, e.g., Economic Development Council, Chamber of Commerce, Community Development Corporation, etc., instead of spending $75,000?
I am also told that the DECD budget includes funding for the boondoggle of creating an economic development “strategic plan” despite Chapter Nine of the 2010 St. Mary’s County Comprehensive Plan fundamentally serving that purpose?
County Commissioners Jack Russell, Cindy Jones, Todd Morgan and Dan Morris chose to deny county taxpayers any tax relief. Instead, they have sought credit and gratitude for having not increased tax rates. Even though the tax rates remained unchanged, the county budget contains increases of $1.2 million in property taxes, $6 million in income tax and $205,000 in other local taxes, a total of $7.4 million more to be paid by taxpayers.
It is not uncommon that the political interests of elected officials are not always aligned with public interests. What, if any, influence did political posturing for next year’s elections play in the county commissioners’ budget decisions this year?