- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Charles County government spending in fiscal 2013 will be about 5.6 percent higher than this year’s, the county commissioners decided Tuesday, and property taxes will rise to cover what would otherwise be a deficit of $10.3 million in the county’s general fund.
The board unanimously accepted the most expensive of four budget proposals proffered by county staffers, then added another $300,000 to the budget of the Charles County State’s Attorney’s Office, and 75,000 for the Charles County Mobile Intensive Care Unit. These moves were not included in any of the Department of Fiscal and Administrative Services’ suggested budgets.
The decision raises general fund expenditures for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, to $325 million.
Driving up the deficit are raises for most county workers. They include a three-step pay increase for Charles County Sheriff’s Office deputies, one step for eligible Charles County Public Schools employees and one step for eligible county government employees, at a cost of about $8.5 million.
The decision requires that property taxes, currently at $1.0665 per $100 of assessed value, rise by 5.45 cents, an increase of 5.1 percent.
The proposal still could change, as the budget will be formally adopted June 26. But by selecting an option, the board instructed county staff to present a budget based on their decisions for approval next Tuesday.
The board struggled with the decision, at first adopting a scenario with a lower property tax hike, then reversing it a few hours later. First, Commissioners Reuben B. Collins II (D), Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) narrowly approved a budget requiring a 3.65 cent property tax increase, which would have given sheriff’s officers only a two-step raise and paid only half of the cost of a raise for public school employees.
The decision prompted two sheriff’s deputies in the audience to storm out of the commissioners’ meeting, one yelling, “You’re out of touch!”
At the end of the meeting, Rucci moved to reconsider.
“Obviously, I agree with Commissioner Rucci in giving the sheriff’s office three steps. That’s where we’re leaving it. We’re not taking all of what was proposed to us as the fourth option, but modifying the third option,” said Commissioner Ken Robinson (D).
But commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said she would not support a proposal that didn’t involve funding a full raise for teachers, and the rest of the board complied, agreeing to pass the option with the higher property tax increase instead.
Collins said he was “very uncomfortable” with the budget selected, even though he had voted for it. He said he would release a statement Thursday explaining his position in more detail. No statement had been released by Thursday afternoon.
Davis and Rucci, who also changed their votes, did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Officials praise decision
Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) said the $300,000 boost to his budget is desperately needed, and will be used to hire three prosecutors, two support staffers and an investigator.
It falls far short of the $989,000 he asked for last month, but will give his attorneys room to breathe, he said.
Without the increase, the state’s attorney’s office would have had to neglect some cases, though he wouldn’t say what kinds.
“If that was the case, I’d have to make the tough decisions. You just can’t keep driving people so hard without mistakes being made. You can’t. You just can’t continue to work people and ask so much of them before something really bad can happen to them. In a prosecutors’ office, something bad could mean a serious case gets really screwed up,” he said.
Police raises aren’t written in stone, but Sheriff Rex Coffey said he wasn’t worried.
“If we don’t get the raises and that’s something they decide to follow up with, that would be their decision. It’s not something I would recommend. I believe, ultimately, at the end of the day, people do the right thing. At this point I feel they have done the right thing,” Coffey (D) said. “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d have a merry Christmas all the time. But I don’t see any of them changing their mind.”
Elizabeth Brown, president of the teachers’ union, wasn’t quite ready to relax.
“Considering the way they seem to operate, yes, I am a little worried” about a last-minute reversal, Brown said.
The Education Association of Charles County is disappointed that the board didn’t accept an “option five” budget the group presented, which would have given them bigger raises, but any boost helps teachers and encourages students to consider the profession, Brown said.
“We have members that haven’t had an increase in three years, veteran teachers that haven’t had an increase in three years,” Brown said. “What message does that send to [students] when they see their teachers working part-time jobs? Does that make them want to go into a career, when they see their teachers always trying to get funds for education? We’re trying to build the profession.”