With revenue estimates revised (and revised again) from County Executive Rick Pollitt, a majority of the Wicomico County Council went on a feeding frenzy Wednesday. While taxpayers will be forced to endure a 9.28% increase in the real property rate, council members Stevie Prettyman, John Hall, Matt Holloway, Bob Culver, and Sheree Sample-Hughes decided to dole out raises for every county employee, along with a host of other spending increases. Only council president Joe Holloway advocated restraint. Councilwoman Gail Bartkovich had to leave the meeting before the end of the day’s spending spree was over.
I Thought the Charter Prohibited the Council from Increasing Spending?
It does. However, in a politically astute move by Pollitt and County Administrator Wayne Strausburg, the Executive handed council a pot of money and essentially said “Have some fun! Spend it however you want.” The increased spending will technically come from the County Executive in the form of an amendment.
Now, with four Republican council members abandoning any sense of fiscal restraint, Pollitt can complete this term without worrying about the council yanking the spending chain. Any criticism of Pollitt’s poor fiscal record by Prettyman, Hall, Matt Holloway, or Culver will be dismissed by Pollitt as mere hypocrisy. He will be correct.
Bellying up to the public trough and gorging themselves on every available taxpayer dollar, these self-identified “conservatives” have formally subscribed to the Pollitt school of governance – raise taxes to the extent possible and spend every last nickel.
Where Did the Money Come From?
This is the $64,000 question. On May 1st Pollitt submitted a proposed budget with total revenue of $114 million. On May 25th he submitted an amended budget proposal with total revenue of $116.2 million. The $2,173,593 difference was made up of a grant from the state to help cover the cost of the teacher pension shift and a $605,756 increase in income tax revenue. The difference in revenue numbers also conveniently equaled the amount of the teacher pension costs.
The increase in income tax revenue is questionable. However, since the revenue estimates are supposed to come from the state it is difficult to question. The $605,756 “increase” in projected income tax revenue allowed Pollitt to avoid cuts necessitated by the teacher pension shift. It was mighty convenient.
On Tuesday night the council held its public hearing on the budget. Those were the revenue numbers being used. Wednesday morning the council met for its final budget work session. “Miraculously”, $589,224 in additional revenue was available (at least according to Pollitt’s budget amendment). One more example of Pollitt and his staff riding in at the 11th hour.
To characterize the county’s revenue projections as “suspect” is an understatement. This deepens our concern over council’s decision to adopt the Pollitt approach to spending.
In addition to these suspect increases in projected FY 2013 revenue, another $3.5 million “fell from heaven” in the form of higher than budgeted income tax revenues for FY 2012. The next time you knock your car out of alignment due to a pothole, call your council members and ask why they didn’t ask to use some of those funds for road maintenance.
How Much Do We Have Left?
Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman personified the death of fiscal restraint when she turned to fellow council members and asked, “How much do we have left?”. The intent was clear – we’re going to spend every available cent. However, Prettyman cannot be singled out as the council’s leading spendthrift. She just provided the quote which summed up Wednesday’s spending spree.
County employees will receive a 2% pay raise. However, this is deceiving. Because Pollitt’s budget had already eliminated furloughs, some employees will see their pay increase 4% – 5% over last year. The county auditor will receive a pay hike of $12,500. To date, the taxpayers cannot claim any particular bang for their buck from his services (although the council shares primary blame for this by refusing to assign him more meaningful tasks). The council also decided to fund additional staff for the State’s Attorney’s office and for SWED (Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development). While local fire companies also requested an additional $6,000 per company for EMS, the council decided to only fund half.
Why is the council agreeing to spend this money – and refusing to make ANY cuts to Pollitt’s proposed budget? The excuse you will hear from the spendthrift party of council (it is no longer meaningful to distinguish between Republicans and the lone Democrat) is twofold:
- The state is making us raise taxes.
- These are legitimate needs.
- There is NO waste in Pollitt’s budget.
It is true that the state is requiring Wicomico County to max out on property tax rates. That does not mean that the council is obligated to spend every thin dime.
As with all government spending, every line item has a constituency. We can have a civil discussion as to whether or not every expenditure is necessary. However, in these still precarious economic times we have to ask – Should every county employee receive a raise when many of the taxpayers footing the bill are unemployed or working two jobs? One profligate council member tried to explain: “We went through every line item in the budget. There was a good case for every expense.” I didn’t want to insult them by laughing.
What’s Going to Happen?
On Monday morning the Wicomico County Council will gather to vote on a final budget. Each member will give a little speech and tell the taxpayers of Wicomico County that they’ve worked really hard and have been faithful stewards of the taxpayers’ hard earned money. No one will here an argument from this quarter that every member of the Wicomico County Council is a decent, hardworking representative. I am confident that, in their respective minds, they believe that they are being faithful stewards and acting in the best interests of their constituents. Unfortunately, any objective individual who witnessed six of our seven council members belly up to the public trough would know that this simply isn’t the case.