In seven days the Maryland General Assembly will meet for a special session – some are calling it the “Doomsday Session”. The primary purpose of this session is to raise taxes. It seems that Maryland Democrats and special interest groups such as AFSCME and teachers union think that spending $700 million more than last year just isn’t enough. If lots of teachers and other public employees aren’t paid enough to pay their union dues then the little children, the poor, and the infirm will all suffer mightily.
But … there’s another reason for this session; at least if you live in Wicomico County. After the legislature adopted SB 848 and left Wicomico with a huge increase in its maintenance of effort (MOE), County Executive Rick Pollitt has based his entire budget on the premise that his pals in the legislature will hold Wicomico County harmless and set the county’s MOE at the level spent in FY 2012. This includes the expected teacher pension shift. Pollitt claims that this burden will be placed on the schools’ budget and not on the county. Will the General Assembly do that?
For the sake of Wicomico taxpayers I hope so. However, I have concerns about such a move. It would be inherently unfair and it’s doubtful that the state legislature will ride to Wicomico County’s defense after complaining for years about the county’s revenue cap and its unwillingness to appropriate what the state considers adequate funding for county schools.
Other Eastern Shore counties such as Talbot and Kent counties are tying themselves in knots trying to meet their MOE obligations. To add insult to injury, these counties pay a much higher percentage of their schools’ total costs than do Wicomico. Talbot taxpayers pay approximately 58% of their schools’ operating budget. Kent County pays over 58%. Worcester pays over 73%. Wicomico? This year Wicomico paid only 21.5% of the cost of its schools’ operating budget.
Talbot County has a real property tax cap almost identical to Wicomico County’s. This year they are planning to break that cap because of the required additional spending placed on them by Annapolis. In addition, the Talbot County Council is forward thinking enough to appropriate for school pensions in anticipation of that being enacted in special session.
Kent County is seeking a waiver of its MOE obligation, which is being opposed by its board of education. Wicomico is also seeking a waiver but both its BOE and teachers’ union have rejected the application. Translation – NO WAIVER.
Again, should Wicomico County be bailed out while other Shore counties are left to their own devices?
Assuming Pollitt’s predictions come true, there is another question that must be asked – What back room promises has Pollitt made to legislators to get his bail out?
When Pollitt presented his budget to the county council – TWO WEEKS LATE – he represented that Annapolis would hold Wicomico County totally harmless. MOE would be met by appropriating $206,000 more to the WCBOE than was appropriated last year. He has also sought a waiver. That waiver would not be granted because the local board of education is attempting to extort an additional $2 million from the county.
Unknown to most citizens, it is now state law that a waiver will not be granted UNLESS it is signed off by both the local board AND the local teachers’ union. Both have rejected the waiver request. The WCBOE says that they will re-consider the application if it is amended to add an additional $2 million to the county’s appropriation.
This, along with legislation passed in Annapolis, amount to little more than extortion of our local governments. Kent County commissioner Alex Rasin recently resigned his seat in protest of this heavy-handed approach by the state towards our local governments.
Again, does anyone really believe that Annapolis will bail out Wicomico County after sending this message to Maryland’s counties?
What will happen in the special session? It’s anyone’s guess. No one, least of all members of Wicomico’s County Council should bet the farm on Pollitt’s prognostication of events in the state’s capital. So far the County Executive is batting a big ZERO on that front. He has already proven that setting county policy based on “what someone said” in a meeting is irresponsible. That said, the responsible members of Wicomico County’s government have some choices:
- Appropriate at the level of last year’s appropriation plus $206,000. If Annapolis doesn’t make Pollitt’s dreams come true, there is always the option of allowing the state to confiscate the county’s income tax revenues – which are about the same amount of money. Council must note that this is a one time fix. If the county does this, the big spenders across the Bay (along with our own Delegates Conway and Cane) will come up with another scheme to punish Wicomico next year.
- Eliminate spending for Bennett Middle School. This needs to be done whatever the happens. Until there is a GUARANTEE of state funding for the school AND the council is comfortable that Annapolis won’t come back with a new scheme to punish and / or extort Wicomico County over the next five or ten years, it is ridiculous to borrow money that the county can ill-afford to spend. Note that this only saves $300,000 this year.
- Give in to the Board of Education’s extortion. The extra money can be taken out of reserves, so the revenue cap won’t have to be broken. However, the council should not appropriate the funds until it has received signed letters from BOTH the WCBOE and the teachers’ union that they support a waiver at this level which also re-sets the county’s MOE requirement to that level. I can’t comment on the teacher’s union, but all evidence indicates that Wicomico superintendent John Frederiksen lacks the personal honor to appropriate funds based on his personal assurance. Yes it’s bad policy to give into extortion, but this may buy the county a lot more time than option 1.
- Hand the county government over to the state. I know, it’s extreme. However, if the state requires a re-set to last year plus $14 million (or even plus $7 million) the county can’t afford it. Raising real property taxes by $0.20 or $0.30 will wind up costing some people their homes. Small businesses, which pay a personal property tax based on the real property rate will choose to start-up or locate elsewhere.
Wicomico taxpayers can hope and pray that Annapolis will ride to the rescue. Citizens in other counties should be outraged if it does.