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Haggling marks end of county budget process

May 29, 1997

By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Staff Writer

After months of budget workshops, hearings and proposals, the Washington County Commissioners' $125 million budget came down to a couple of hours of horsetrading on Tuesday afternoon.

The frank discussions only hours before the commissioners approved the budget stood in stark contrast to earlier meetings when the commissioners would often stare at each other waiting for someone to speak.

Commissioner John S. Shank told the other commissioners they didn't have enough discussions like these earlier.

"I think we should have had more of these types of meetings. We've got some real differences of opinion here," he said. Shank said it was a little late to be considering the wholesale changes the commissioners considered. "I sure don't like making quick decisions," he said.

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As usual, money for education and tax increases were the sticking points, but this time the commissioners were given a gift horse. County Finance Director Debra Bastian, back from a one-week vacation, told the commissioners that she anticipated a $2 million to $2.5 million surplus this budget year, which ends June 30.

Bastian projected a $1.6 million surplus in income tax revenue and an $800,000 surplus in real estate property tax revenue.

Previously, Bastian had only told commissioners of a $1 million surplus expected from income taxes because of a hot stock market. Bastian also came up with $220,000 in additional miscellaneous revenue, including anticipated interest earnings from the surplus.

The commissioners gave themselves another $200,000 to play with by assuming higher revenue growth next year, and they tapped $168,000 in surplus funds from a Cavetown sewer project to pay for cleaning the county's industrial pretreatment plant.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, who had predicted a surplus of $2.5 million months ago, blasted the changing projections from Bastian. "Constantly, there is a new paper with new revenue projections," he said.

At one point, the commissioners considered scrapping their proposed tax increases and instead instituting a 1 percent real estate transfer tax proposed by Bowers.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said that if the commissioners went along with that kind of wholesale change, they should hold another public hearing. Bowers' proposal was shot down after Shank criticized it as anti-growth and R. Lee Downey said the transfer tax should be held in reserve because it can be instituted any time during the year.

Shank also pushed for targeting the school board money for senior teachers. "The 40 percent senior teachers hasn't had a pay raise for four or five years," he said. "They're the ones that are going to leave the quickest," he said. "They can retire right now."

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