A strategic plan put in place by the Frederick County Board of Commissioners when it took office in 2010 is succeeding in helping the county regain its financial footing following damage done by the recession, according to the commissioners who presented the annual State of the County report on Dec. 6.
In a wide-ranging, 45-minute PowerPoint presentation to a small audience at Winchester Hall in Frederick, officials painted a picture of a county that is still working to deal with budgetary challenges and other issues but has made economic progress.
“Despite many challenges, the state of the county is strong,” Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) said.
Young said the commissioners have been getting lots of positive feedback in emails and letters from residents about the changes that have been made.
But the moves haven’t been without controversy in the last two years.
The commissioners have drawn criticism for cutting funding for Head Start, outsourcing too many county jobs to private firms and approving too much growth in the county, among other contentious issues.
Total employment in the county is 90,781 jobs, up 1.9 percent from a low of 89,106 in 2010, while the average weekly wage increased to $958 per week, up 12 percent from 2010, Helen Riddle of the Business Development and Retention Office said during the presentation.
The county’s 5.3 percent unemployment rate in October was down from 6 percent in January, and below the state rate of 6.3 percent and the national 7.9 percent rate, Riddle said.
That rate also compares favorably with 5.7 percent in Carroll County and 8 percent in Washington County, but is higher than Howard County’s 4.7 percent.
“All of that is a positive indicator. We’re not where we want to be, but we continue to move in a positive mode,” Riddle said.
Promoting job growth and increasing predictability to attract businesses were two of the commissioners’ top priorities in their strategic plan, along with privatizing government services, improving public safety, agricultural preservation, land use and housing and transportation and traffic issues.
Riddle said her office was tasked with 263 action items by the five commissioners when they took office. As of November, nearly 73 percent of them have been completed, including significantly revising and streamlining the county’s application and approval process, reducing fees for some development applications and effectively eliminating the county’s building excise tax by reducing it to zero, she said.
Of the remaining items, about three-quarters of them are under way, Riddle said.
Among other tax relief efforts the commissioners initiated this year were reducing the county’s admissions and amusements tax to zero, reducing the trailer tax rate from 15 percent to zero, creating a senior property tax credit and giving all owner-occupied residential properties a $100 tax credit, County Manager Lori Depies said during her portion of the presentation.
The county’s fiscal 2013 budget implemented a merit-pay increase and cost-of-living adjustment for county employees, restored the pay scale for sheriff’s office deputies and implemented a new pay scale for uniformed fire and rescue employees, Depies said, even as the county’s workforce has continued to dwindle by leaving vacated positions unfilled.
The county’s workforce has been reduced by 269 county employees and 102 grant funded positions since 2010, Depies said.
The commissioners have increased employee contributions to pension plans, going from 4 percent to 6 percent for non-uniformed county employees and from 8 percent to 9 percent for uniformed sheriff’s deputies and fire and rescue staff.
Measures taken by the county to address some of its structural deficit issues have improved the county’s bond rating since 2010, Depies said.
Fitch now has the county listed at a AAA/Stable rating, Moody’s at As1/Stable and Standard and Poor at AA+/Stable, she said. In 2010, Fitch’s rating was a AAA/Negative and Standard and Poor rated the county’s bonds AA/Stable. Moody’s rating did not change.
Other positive news noted in the presentation Dec. 6 included that Frederick County has the third-highest graduation rate in Maryland, with 91.54 percent of students finishing high school. The county’s dropout rate of 5.05 percent was lowest in the state.
And Newsweek magazine listed all nine county high schools on its 2012 list of America’s Best High Schools.
On the crime front, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office responded to 98,876 calls for service in 2011. The county’s crime rate of 14.69 crimes per thousand residents was less than half of the national average of 32.95 crimes per thousand, according to the presentation.