Hundreds come to public hearing on St. Mary's budget

St. Mary’s Superintendent Scott Smith, left, speaks with his wife, Michelle, as well as Therese Pennyfather outside of a public hearing on the St. Mary’s commissioners’ proposed fiscal 2022 budget.

While about 66 people spoke at Tuesday evening’s public hearing on St. Mary’s County fiscal 2022 budget, hundreds gathered outside the commissioners’ meeting room in Leonardtown to make their points known, too.

Many of the visitors to the county’s governmental complex were there to oppose the commissioners’ decision to not fully fund the St. Mary’s school board’s requested increase, a move that Superintendent Scott Smith says will lead to popular programs being cut in order to meet a negotiated agreement with school employees.

At the educators’ side were sheriff’s office employees, who also requested an increase in their deputies’ salary to reach pay parity with the Maryland State Police and the Charles County Sheriff’s Office that was not fulfilled, and the St. Mary’s health department, which requested new positions which would provide assistance in the next public health emergency.

“It seems like I find myself here talking to you every single year, as if we’re always begging our elected leaders to come up with some way to give us one more dollar,” Sarah Penrod, president of the Educators Association of St. Mary’s County, told commissioners.

“As the budget currently stands, there is over $3 million in excess revenue not allocated for anything,” Cpl. Sheena Tirpak of the sheriff’s office, who is the secretary of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said, referencing an increase in the commissioners’ emergency reserve. Last year, when commissioners mulled raising deputies’ pay to reach parity, “we heard the same ‘no, the sky is falling’ reasons,” she said.

“It’s embarrassing to have to come before you and beg for money to do my job. It’s absolutely ludicrous,” Tammy Payne, a former police officer who is now a teacher, said.

“Rather than being visionaries, and being courageous, we hear haggling, publicly, and we hear belittling about ‘Moakley St. Palace,’ [the school administration headquarters]. We don’t need that kind of commentary,” Alex Jaffurs, the public schools’ director of assessment and accountability, said, referencing a comment made by Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) that morning about school board administrators receiving raises in the request as well.

“The problem is, you guys have created a new political environment, a new cohort, ‘tax-and-not-spend Republicans,’” he said, referencing a raise in local taxes last year.

While revenue growth is expected to increase to around 5.5% this year, commissioners elected to maintain a conservative 3.5% growth estimate during budget work sessions, with Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) and Commissioner John O’Connor (R) dissenting against that decision.

The conservative estimate is in part due to belief that the county has not yet felt the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on its revenues, and that the county would not be able to maintain such increases in the long term.

Deb Rey, a former Republican delegate, said she “had a different speech planned” but changed her mind listening to people speaking.

“Hearing the teachers wanting their COLA increase, hearing our police officers, wanting their pay increases, I support them,” Rey said, noting several places in the budget where cost-cutting measures could be made, including holding a public works increase of $2.3 million.

She also pointed out an increase in the commissioners’ emergency reserve, which is funded in the proposed budget at $3.1 million, despite only $500,000 being initially requested, an increase cited by Colvin as one of the reasons he voted against the proposed budget.

“There we go, just found their COLAs, just found their pay raises for you,” she said.

Not much was said on two other public hearings held Tuesday evening — maintaining the current tax rate of $.8478 per $100 of assessment, which would not offset increased revenues to the county, and on fees and charges for senior centers and emergency services billing.

“The county is going to collect millions more from residents because of inflated assessment rates,” William Bryant, a Mechanicsville resident said, asking commissioners to not collect the automatic increase and to “keep those dollars in people’s pockets.”

Residents also called in to suggest commissioners budget for three early voting centers during the next election, rather than the two required, and to suggest commissioners work on commemorating former St. Mary’s Sheriff Joseph Lee Somerville, the first Black sheriff in Maryland, who recently died. The commissioners have recently come under fire for not attending Somerville’s funeral service.

The board is scheduled for two budget work sessions in May to reconcile changes before the budget is adopted on May 25.

Twitter: @DanSoMdNews

Twitter: @DanSoMdNews