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Public hearing on proposed county budget set for Tuesday

May 02, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- The Washington County Commissioners will accept public comments Tuesday night on their proposed $296 million budget for fiscal year 2011.

The public hearing, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater, will include a presentation on the proposed budget, followed by a public comment period. Sign-up for those wishing to speak will begin at 6 p.m.

The hearing will provide an opportunity for comment on budget-related decisions, including the county's proposed real property tax rates, a shift in the taxation system for municipal residents, and proposed increases in county water and sewer rates.

The budget is for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Tax and utility rates



The commissioners are proposing to preserve the current tax rate of 94.8 cents per $100 of assessed value for county residents not within a municipality.

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They are proposing to decrease the tax rate for residents of Hagerstown and the county's eight towns to 82.3 cents per $100 of assessed value as part of a new tax-differential system.

This new system will replace the county's former practice of providing a rebate to municipalities for services that their residents get from the municipality rather than from the county. Because the municipalities are losing that rebate, they might increase their own tax rates to compensate, but the county tax decrease will exceed any necessary increase in municipal taxes, according to a notice the county advertised in The Herald-Mail.

The county has proposed water and sewer rate increases that would increase the average residential water bill by $4.50 and the average residential sewer bill by $4.90.

The proposed increases reflect a drop in water and sewer usage, and the need to build up reserves in preparation for the utility funds to lose all general fund contributions starting in 2013 as part of a self-sufficiency plan, officials have said.

Shrinking budget



The proposed total budget of $296,294,760 is $50.6 million, or 14.6 percent, below the county's fiscal year 2010 budget. It would be the smallest total budget the county has had since fiscal year 2006.

The main reasons for the decrease are declining general fund revenue, state funding cuts and reductions in the capital improvement program, according to "A Citizen's Guide to the Budget" distributed by the county.

The proposed general fund budget of about $197.1 million would be about 5.9 percent lower than the fiscal year 2010 general fund budget of $209.3 million.

Local income tax is projected to drop about 11 percent, or $8 million, due to continued high unemployment, the guide says.

Real estate revenue also is projected to drop. While the county's net assessable base will grow slightly, the shift to the tax-differential system will cause an overall decrease in property tax revenue, the guide says.

The estimated net increase in assessable base is 0.6 percent. The assessable base is decreasing in Boonsboro, Funkstown and Smithsburg -- areas that were reassessed for Jan. 1, 2010 -- but increasing in areas reassessed less recently. Many homeowners still are seeing assessment increases from before the recession phased in due to caps on annual taxable assessment increases, officials have said.

Another major factor affecting the budget was the continued loss of state revenue for road maintenance, which the county is replacing by transferring $8.1 million from its general fund to its highway fund.

The proposed budget includes no step or cost-of-living increases for county staff, and employees and retirees would pay about 7 percent higher medical insurance premiums.

The county also has proposed cutting most of its contributions to nonprofit organizations by 2 percent from this year's amounts.

Capital improvement budget



The county is proposing a capital improvement budget of about $55.3 million, down about 40 percent from its fiscal year 2011 capital improvement budget of about $81.5 million.

The lower capital budget reflects a much smaller transfer of general fund revenue to the capital improvement plan than in previous years, when the county poured surplus revenue into capital projects rather than using it to create new recurring, or "baseline," expenses, county officials have said.

The capital projects budgeted to receive the most funding in fiscal year 2011 are the new primary school under construction near the intersection of Yale Drive and Mount Aetna Road off Dual Highway, a performing and visual arts education center at Hagerstown Community College, and the renovation and expansion of the main branch of the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown.

At Tuesday's public hearing, speakers will be limited to three minutes each and must sign up before the meeting, county spokesman Norman Bassett said in a press release.

The public hearing will be aired by Antietam Cable Television on its channel 99 and will be available as Video on Demand on ACTV, Bassett said.




IF YOU GO...



What: Public hearing on proposed Washington County budget for fiscal year 2011

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater

More information: Speakers will be limited to three minutes each and must sign up prior to the meeting. Sign-up will begin at 6 p.m.




A 32-page budget summary document titled "A Citizen's Guide to the Budget" is available at the county's website, http://www.washco-md.net. Click on the link for the budget public hearing under "latest county news." The guide also will be available at the hearing.




TOTAL BUDGET



$296.3 million -- down 14.6 percent

General fund

$197.1 million -- down 5.9 percent

Education (as part of general fund)

$104 million -- down 0.7 percent

Public safety (as part of general fund)

$34.5 million -- down 1.6 percent

Capital improvement

$55.3 million -- down about 40 percent

Education (as part of capital improvement)

$29.1 million -- down about 40 percent

Roads (as part of capital improvement)

$14.6 million -- down about 30 percent

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