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County budget plan draws praise, criticism at hearing

May 05, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Washington County Administrator Gregory B. Murray presented the 2011 County Budget to the public Tuesday night at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.
Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- During a public hearing Tuesday night on the county's proposed budget, the Washington County Commissioners heard comments from educators and organizations thanking them for their support as well as requests from citizens for tax relief and for greater transparency about budget details.

About 100 people attended the hearing at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.

The county's total proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1, is about $296.3 million, roughly 14.6 percent smaller than the fiscal year 2010 budget. It would be the county's smallest budget since fiscal year 2006.

Eight people made comments during the hearing, with six thanking the commissioners and two offering criticism.

Representatives from Holly Place, the Community Action Council, HCC, the Washington County Teachers' Association and the Washington County Senior Coalition each thanked the commissioners for their support.

The proposed budget would maintain 98 percent of 2010 funding levels for Holly Place and the CAC, flat funding for HCC and a "maintenance of effort" funding level for Washington County Public Schools, despite the availablity of waivers that might have allowed the county to drop below maintenance of effort levels.

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"We know what's been going on across the country and in our state," Washington County Teachers Association Vice President Beckie Higgins said. "We do know the differences just a few miles down the road when we talk about supporting the budget for education."

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire also spoke about the county's relatively positive budget outlook.

"Comparatively, this board's not been talking about severe layoffs or furloughs, we're not discussing the institution of odd things you read about in our governing magazines, like bottle taxes and specific fee funds, we don't have issues where our board of education is considering suing the board of county commissioners, as I've read in some jurisdictions," Aleshire said, crediting that position to smart planning by county budget staff.

Hagerstown resident Robert Colvin spoke about how his home has lost almost $150,000 in value, yet his assessment is increasing, and asked the county for property tax relief for city residents.

After speaking with county officials after the meeting, Colvin said he had misinterpreted the county's legal ad about tax rates, thinking it showed an increase in the tax rate for city residents, when actually the county is proposing to decrease taxes for municipal residents as part of a shift in the tax setoff method.

Colvin said he would have to wait and see whether the change provided any actual relief.

Rohrersville resident Daniel W. Moeller asked the commissioners to release more information about the county's reserves, including the total amount of reserves, the county's investment strategy for reserve funds and how market fluctuation has affected the reserves over the past few years.

"Some counties have lost large amounts of their reserves because of poor investment strategies," Moeller said.

He noted that the county's budget summary mentions a "change in investment strategy scheduled for 2011," and questioned whether that meant the current investment strategy had failed.

County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said after the meeting that the county's general fund reserves are 17 percent of the previous budget year's actual revenue -- about $36 million as of the end of fiscal year 2009, according to an audited financial statement on the county's website. They will remain at that 17 percent level next fiscal year, Murray said.

Those reserves are kept in cash form or invested in federally backed securities, and therefore may reflect lower interest rates, but are not subject to losses, Murray said.

A budget draft document shows general fund interest revenue of about $7.4 million for fiscal year 2008, about $3 million for fiscal year 2009, budgeted interest earnings of $819,940 for fiscal year 2010, and budgeted interest earnings of $813,170 for fiscal year 2011.

That decrease in interest revenue has been due to market conditions, Murray said.

"Getting any interest at all is almost a miracle," he said.

The budget draft notes a plan to "analyze cash flow and potentially invest in certificates of deposits for longer periods of time in order to secure higher rates."

Murray said the county had been reluctant to buy long-term CDs due to low interest rates. As interest rates recover, the county might be willing to commit to longer terms, perhaps two years as opposed to three months, he said.

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