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The April 26 article, “How county plans to handle $60 million in unspent funds,” noted that the proposed 2014 St. Mary’s County budget has approximately $8 million in uncommitted, discretionary funds. It is my suggestion that the county commissioners should give some of it back.

The function of the county government is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public. To accomplish this function the county government provides essential public services and facilities, which are funded by the annual county budget. It is in the context of essential versus nonessential that the county budget should be objectively evaluated regarding the costs versus benefits to taxpayers.

The proposed 2014 county budget is $212.1 million of which $101.4 million is funded by property taxes. As the result of increased property tax valuation assessments, property owners will pay $527,000 more in property tax. The county commissioners could offset this tax increase by the adoption of the constant yield tax rate, but have inexplicably refused to do so despite the tax offset being only 0.002 percent of the budget.

The county commissioners could also provide long-term property tax relief by reducing the Homestead Tax Credit cap on the annual rate of assessment increases from 5 percent to 3 percent. The 5 percent cap was adopted in 1995. With the significant increase in the county’s assessable tax base, now $11.7 billion, the cap should be reduced to 3 percent, which would be consistent with indices of inflation. Doing so would protect the welfare of property owners from the volatility of market-driven housing price increases.

The county commissioners should also consider reducing or eliminating the energy taxes of $1.3 million on electricity, fuel oil, liquefied petroleum and natural gas, thereby helping to reduce the cost of living and housing.

The need for local tax relief, during a time of negative economic conditions, is evidenced by the average residential property tax payment of $2,538 and the average personal income tax payment of $1,818, an average total of $4,356 or 7 percent of net taxable income paid to the county. However, this total does not include other local taxes and fees.

Tax relief could be facilitated by the elimination of nonessential budget expenditures. The budget includes $1.3 million to be gifted to 25 independent nonprofit agencies. Why, for example, should $25,000 in public funds be given to the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance considering the financial assets of its membership? The long-standing practice of the county commissioners gifting public funds to nonprofit agencies is very questionable in its nature. It is a positive change that such agencies will in the future be required to fully participate in the new Non-Profit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland. However, this change does not address the fundamental issue that public funds should not be gifted, but instead awarded through a formal grant process that includes justification and accountability for the use of the funds.

The April 26 article noted that Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s) has suggested that the county commissioners could free up some of the fund balance. Given his tax-and-spend voting record in the Maryland General Assembly, he undoubtedly is not suggesting that it be freed up for the purpose of tax relief.

Vernon Gray, Great Mills