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Tax hike discussed

April 11, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

The Washington County Commissioners considered but rejected two tax hike proposals and heard pleas for additional money for the School Board during a Tuesday meeting at which they tried unsuccessfully to balance the budget.

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Because they were unable to balance the budget, a public hearing on the $121 million spending plan will have to be delayed for at least two weeks, County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

During the meeting, Washington County Board of Education President Paul Bailey and other School Board representatives asked the commissioners to reconsider a tentative decision to give the School Board about $1.9 million less than it requested.

If the commissioners don't give the School Board $1.5 million more than is currently budgeted, teachers and other employees won't get raises, Bailey said.

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The level of School Board funding was not changed Tuesday.

Instead, the commissioners told the School Board to re-examine its budget to see if it could get by with less money than requested.

The commissioners started and ended the meeting with a projected shortfall of about $3.3 million.

At one point Commissioner William J. Wivell proposed raising the property tax to bring in an additional $5.5 million, according to budget documents. Under such an increase, the average property owner would pay $96 more next year, documents said.

That proposal was shot down 4-1, with only Wivell voting for it.

"I did it to force the issue," Wivell said later. "It would have made for an interesting public hearing."

A proposal by Commissioner Paul L. Swartz to increase both property and income tax rates, to raise $4.9 million, was also voted down.

The County Commissioners will return to budget discussions in two weeks. There is no meeting scheduled for next Tuesday because of Easter.

After almost three hours of budget discussions, during which the commissioners voted to increase some Sheriff's deputies' pay, the question of a tax hike was directly confronted.

Swartz said it was time for the county to face the tough issue head-on.

Wivell asked to be given five minutes to argue against increasing School Board funding immediately.

He distributed documents comparing, by School Board job category, the pay level for school employees in all Maryland counties and Baltimore city. According to the documents, the county ranks 15th out of 24 municipalities for household median income and 16th for per-pupil funding. The county ranks 20th out of 24 municipalities for average salary of county teachers with master's degrees, he said.

Wivell said he would not consider giving the School Board more money until he finds out why the board is not spending more money to increase teachers' salaries.

Earlier in the meeting, Educational Support Personnel Local No. 1 President Bonnie Parks said that last year she helped negotiate a two-year contract for the 935-member school employee group.

If funding for the School Board isn't increased above the tentative budgeted amount, those employees won't get raises that are in the contract, Parks said.

In addition, the School Board would not be able to give raises to other employee groups, Bailey said.

The County Commissioners tentatively approved one budget Tuesday: The $19.6 million annual Capital Improvement Program. The proposed CIP calls for issuing about $12.6 million in bonds to help pay for the program and providing about $1.3 million from the general fund.

Tuesday's action was needed in order for the county to take the capital program budget to a public hearing. That hearing had been scheduled for April 25, but will be delayed until the general fund budget is balanced.

The School Board has asked for $66.2 million for operating expenses, up from $59.7 million this year, according to budget documents.

Instead, the budget calls for giving the School Board $63.7 million for operating costs and $550,000 in related one-time costs.

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