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County faces school board fund dilemma

March 26, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The Washington County Commissioners learned Thursday that the Washington County Board of Education's budget request for the coming year is almost $3.2 million more than the county can afford to spend without making cuts elsewhere or raising taxes.

The commissioners made several cuts to the preliminary fiscal 2000 spending plan on Thursday, most notably agreeing to raise the salaries of county employees by 5 percent rather than the 8 percent proposed by the county's personnel director.

The preliminary budget, presented by county Budget and Finance Director Debra Bastian, projects more than $10.6 million in new spending over the current budget year and a little more than $7 million in increased revenue.

The changes reduced the shortfall from $3.6 million to $3.17 million.

The commissioners saved $470,625 on salaries and cut $25,000 from the overtime budget for the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

Meanwhile, the School Board has asked for an 11.6 percent funding increase from the county.

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The commissioners were reluctant to comment on the school budget before education leaders present their spending plan on April 6.

"We should not potentially prejudice a public hearing by making some sort of statement today," Commissioner John L. Schnebly said.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger Jr. said they have two unpalatable choices - make large cuts to the School Board's request or raise taxes.

"I don't think any of us are prepared to do either," he said.

Commissioner William J. Wivell said he, too, would like to wait for the public hearing to be held April 6 at North Hagerstown High School.

Funding the School Board's full request without making cuts elsewhere could require a 12 cent increase in the county's property tax rate, Wivell said.

He said giving the School Board a 5 percent increase over the current fiscal year's allocation - or about $58 million - would enable the commissioners to balance the budget. The School Board has asked for $61.6 million from the county.

School officials have said they crafted a "needs-driven budget" that narrows the gap between Washington County and surrounding school districts in teacher pay.

"The big thing for us, our No. 1 priority, is the teacher salary increases. We're pretty firm on that," board President Edwin Hayes said in an interview.

Hayes said the commissioners must be willing to at least consider a tax increase.

"I think education needs to be a priority in this county and we need to figure out how to fund it," he said.

Other increases in the proposed county budget include:

* $754,500 in insurance claims.

* $634,000 for capital projects to be paid out of money from the general fund to reduce borrowing.

* $291,906 in new positions at the Sheriff's Department and job promotions.

* $277,000 for new firefighting equipment.

* $219,084 in wage increases for the Washington County Health Department.

* $205,829 for nonprofit agencies

* $146,425 in other county departments.

Hagerstown Community College has requested an increase of $83,250 from the county for fiscal 2000, or about 2 percent over last year's funding.

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