Last year's 27-cent tax increase is paying dividends in the County Commissioners' proposed $168 million operating and $46 million capital budget.
For the first time in his six years in office, the county didn't have to scrimp, Commissioner Donald I. Dell said after the commissioners agreed on the proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"It helps to have a little money to work with," Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said.
Even Commissioner Richard T. Yates, who voted against the increase in the property tax rate approved by Brown and Dell last year, was smiling.
"I had made a pledge to the voters and didn't want to be in a read my lips' situation," Yates said. But without the property tax increase, "potholes would have become manholes, and snow removal would have become a do-it-yourself project."
What pleases him most this year, Yates said, and what has him leaning toward voting for the budget in late May, is that county revenues are on the upswing -- $6 million more than the current year.
Property values are increasing at a robust pace after the annual rate of increase dwindled to a low of 1.52 percent in fiscal 1996. The rate of increase rose slightly to 2.24 percent in the current fiscal year and is expected to climb to 5.46 percent in the coming one.
The increases, combined with other revenue, would result in a 3.8 percent increase in the budget for fiscal 1998 -- an increase budget director Steven D. Powell calls modest.
But even that "very modest increase" is a far cry from the slashes and deficits that characterized state and local budgets earlier in this decade.
"It's the difference between having a deficit and having money," said Yates. "Last year, people showed up in costumes carrying banners as part of orchestrated groups. There was none of that this year."
The proposed budget will allow the county to keep pace with inflation and maintain services, Powell said. It also includes "a small amount for priorities" and some salary increases.
Economic development is the major beneficiary in the general government portion of the operating budget, up 13 percent or $164,325 over the current budget. Other departments were told to keep their increases for fiscal 1998 modest -- 3 percent or less -- and most did.
The big-ticket item in the general government portion of the budget was $8.4 million for employee health and fringe benefits, up 9 percent or $703,010 from the previous year.
Other highlights in the operating proposal were $2.6 million for the detention center -- up 14 percent; $3.4 million for the resident trooper program -- up 9 percent; and $3.8 million for Volunteer Firemen's Association, up 13 percent. The detention center is being expanded, the troopers are getting a pay raise, and the county is picking up 85 percent of the Volunteer Firemen's Association expenses.
One of the major savings in the operating budget proposal is in the fleet management section. Rather than replace all its vehicles, the county is attempting to extend the life of older ones by outfitting them with new engines and transmissions. The county expects to save $500,000 a year this way.
The major priorities in the $46 million capital budget proposal are $10.6 million for renovations at Francis Scott Key High School and $4 million for the agricultural land preservation program.
Brown and Dell say the commitment to the land preservation program is one of the things they are proudest of in the fiscal 1998 budget proposal. State and local funding makes it possible for the county to deal with a backlog of farmers wanting to enter the program and shows the county's commitment to it, Brown said.
Some salary increase
Overall, Dell said the proposed budget "covers everything very well."
He is pleased that county employees will receive "some kind of salary increase" -- details have not been worked out yet -- and that the $9 million for road work is helping the county "catch up a little faster" with road resurfacing and repair projects neglected when county budgets were more austere.
The thing missing from this budget that he would like to have seen included, had the county been a little more flush, Dell said, is the purchase of computer technology for all departments, including the Board of Education and the community college.
"I don't use computers much myself," Dell said, "but I understand that they are the way of the world today and that every department has a practical need for them."
Computer technology next
Dell expects the county to make a major commitment to computer technology in the fiscal 1999 budget.
Brown, who called the fiscal 1998 proposal "a fair budget that addresses a majority of the county's needs," said one of the places he would have liked to put more money was in the technological side of the library's budget -- something he hopes the commissioners will do next year.
In addition, the county "needs to address school facility and parks and recreation needs in a prompter fashion," Brown said.