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County Commissioners vote to cut $3.3M from school nurse program

Money will be used to offset cost of teacher pensions

June 05, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

Facing a new $3 million tab for teacher pensions, the Washington County Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday to cut $3.3 million from a county health department program that provides nurses in schools.

County Administrator Gregory B. Murray offered two other choices to offset the $3 million — raising the property tax or tapering off payments to the county employee pension fund — but both were rejected by the five commissioners.

The state has been paying the cost of public school teachers’ pensions, but the Maryland General Assembly voted in a special session last month to start shifting that cost to the counties that employ the teachers.

The $3 million more that Washington County is expecting to pay next year was the largest detail the commissioners figured out Tuesday before approving operating and capital budgets for fiscal  2013.

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The commissioners also agreed to eliminate a category of excise tax and to pay for a longer warranty for a new roof at Hagerstown Community College.

In addition, Terry Baker, the president of the commissioners, said he would support the capital budget only if the amount of borrowing were cut.

With the final changes in place, the commissioners approved their spending plans for the coming year.

The Herald-Mail reported in May that the overall proposed $283.4 million budget for fiscal 2013 was 2.51 percent lower than the budget approved for fiscal 2012.

A county budget summary guide shows the capital improvement budget for fiscal 2014 at $45.3 million, an amount included in the overall budget.

Of that $45.2 million, $14 million was to come through tax-supported debt.

Baker objected to that level on Tuesday, saying it should be $12 million.

But Commissioner William McKinley said everything on the capital improvement plan needs to get done. If the county waits, the cost will rise, he said.

However, when Baker said the county could save money on debt payments by lowering its borrowing, other commissioners agreed to explore that idea.

The commissioners approved the capital spending plan with $14 million in borrowing, but agreed to apply up to $2 million in expected savings — particularly from the downtown library renovation — to the debt.

Originally, Gov. Martin O’Malley proposed an equal split in teacher pension costs for next year.

Instead, the legislature agreed to phase in that split over four years.

Washington County’s share is expected to be about $3 million the first year and $4.8 million in year four.

By cutting the $3.3 million school nurse program, the county will have enough to pay the $3 million in new pension costs next year and could apply the remaining $300,000 to future costs.

‘Shared responsibility’

Asked if he thought the county should bear all of the new pension-shift costs, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said: “No, I think this is a shared responsibility.”

School system officials need to determine how many nurses are needed, how the nurses will be supplied to the schools, and how those positions will be funded, Wilcox said.

In addition to talking to the Washington County Health Department about the issue, Wilcox said he would be remiss if he didn’t talk to officials in the medical community, such as at Meritus Medical Center, about different school nursing models.

The county health department pays for most of the school nurses, and the school system pays for some with special education funds, Wilcox said.

The issue will need to be resolved before the start of the school year, he said.

“We can’t be in a position to not meet our kids’ health needs,” Wilcox said.

While this is a difficult time for school system officials, it’s probably more difficult for nurses who wake up today and read about this, Wilcox said.

“To them I want to say, there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before you jump to conclusions about your job and what this might mean,” Wilcox said.

Officials with the health department who oversee the program couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday. But department spokesman Rod MacRae forwarded a statement that there are 74 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants in the program, covering 46 schools.

Some of those positions are substitutes, the department statement said.

Excise, landfill changes

The county excise-tax change made Tuesday only applies to buildings that will change from a nonretail use to a retail use.

The excise tax is $1 per square foot for nonretail, and $3 per square foot for retail.

Murray told the commissioners that small businesses are sometimes hit by large excise-tax costs as they move into a building.

The commissioners considered adjusting the retail excise tax to $1 per square foot for change-of-use cases, then decided to eliminate it entirely.

McKinley called that a good incentive.

The commissioners also agreed to adjust the system of using the county landfill.

Residents have been allowed to buy separate stickers for recycling and yard waste — two programs that don’t pay for themselves — if they already had a landfill sticker.

Now, they will be allowed to buy recycling and yard-waste stickers separately. The cost will remain $36 for a recycling sticker and $15 for a yard-waste sticker.

Finally, the commissioners agreed to pay for a 25-year warranty, which is required, instead of a 15-year warranty for a roof at HCC. The longer warranty will cost about $120,000 more, Murray said.

Staff Writer Julie E. Greene contributed to this story.

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