HAGERSTOWN — After discussing public comments made during a hearing Thursday, the Washington County’s Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the county’s fiscal 2012 operating budget without changes to the proposed version.
The capital budget has not yet been approved.
The approved operating budget is $241.2 million, including a general fund of about $196.3 million.
The five commissioners agreed before the vote that the proposed budget dealt reasonably with county challenges, including a roughly $1.5 million drop in property tax revenue, the loss of highway user revenues from the state and the transfer of local assessment office costs from the state to the county.
Over the past few years, the county has absorbed more than $34 million in decreased revenues and additional expenses without any increase in the tax rate, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.
Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said it was important to make it clear that the county is balancing a reduction in property tax revenue without raising the property tax rate.
Residents of municipalities even saw their county tax rate go down last year with the introduction of a tax differential, and some of those municipalities, including the city of Hagerstown, never instituted a corresponding increase in municipal taxes, Callaham said.
“I think the reason that needs to be so clear is that at the public hearing, we heard more than one individual speaking about the burden of taxes, and that we should be very careful about what we do with their tax dollar, and we’re not asking them for any more money; we’re simply reducing the cost of government,” Callaham said.
The approved budget cuts operating funding for Washington County Free Library by $92,000, or about 3.5 percent, and Hagerstown Community college by $180,000, or about 2 percent.
It also denies a request for funding for replacement school buses and cuts funding for school-crossing guards and for the Judy Center, which provides programs for low-income families.
Murray said county officials understand the worthwhile mission and funding needs of the agencies that were cut, which was described by many who testified at the budget hearing.
“But many of these agencies have never been cut, and this year was just the time we needed to look more globally,” Murray said. “We can’t continue to absorb everything on our little operating piece.”
Commissioner John F. Barr said he had been lobbied by the Washington County Board of Education, the community college, the library and other groups.
“In light of the economy, and revenues down ... it’s only obvious that 3, 4, 4 1/2 percent max (cuts) to any one of those organizations is reasonable, and, in my mind, expected,” Barr said.
The commissioners also discussed a suggested change to the county’s property tax credit for seniors. The county has already lowered the minimum age from 70 to 65, but Callaham said one person suggested raising the maximum income level at which seniors would receive a 100 percent credit from $12,000 to $16,000.
The commissioners decided to look into that change next year for potential inclusion in the fiscal 2013 budget.
Commissioners President Terry Baker asked whether a plan to eliminate overtime at the landfill had been discussed with the employee union, and whether the county had considered having landfill workers dig new cells for the landfill instead of contracting out that work.
Murray told him the county posted notice of the change two months in advance and had discussed it with union officials, although he said such discussion is not required. He said the merits and drawbacks of constructing cells with internal versus contracted labor are considered each time the work is needed.
Overall, Callaham said she thought the budget had been “a good exercise in compromise.”
“I certainly didn’t get everything I wanted into the budget, but that’s the way it goes,” she said.
Fiscal 2012 begins on July 1.
How they voted:
•Terry Baker: yes
•John F. Barr: yes
•Ruth Anne Callaham: yes
•Jeffrey A. Cline: yes
•William B. McKinley: yes