The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Wicomico County’s Budget

Yesterday the Wicomico County Council passed County Executive Rick Pollitt’s FY 2013 operating budget.  While Wicomico continues to endure one of the highest unemployment rates in Maryland, citizens and businesses alike will face higher taxes; placing even greater difficulty on those struggling to keep their homes and adding one more impediment to to a business sitting on the bubble as to whether or not to hire new employees.

For the first time since adopting a county executive form of government, the Wicomico council passed a budget without cutting one red cent from the Executive’s proposed budget.  Several council members (we choose not to embarrass them by giving their names) have actually argued that not one dollar of Pollitt’s $117 million budget is being wasted.  While I’m not aware of anyone claiming that Pollitt’s budget is a cesspool of profligacy and corruption, failing to acknowledge that some spending is wasteful or unnecessary forever surrenders any claim to fiscal conservatism on the part of these council members.  To add insult to the injury of a tax hike, six of the council’s members when on a frenetic spending spree last Wednesday, adding an additional $600,000 to the county’s budget.

THE GOOD

Unless you happen to be a county employee, there’s not much good to be said.  Prior to submitting his budget, Pollitt had already agreed to a 2% pay increase for the county’s deputies.  He also eliminated furloughs for all county employees.  Not to be outdone in the area of spending other people’s money, a majority of council members tacked on a 2% increase in pay for all other county employees.  “FAIRNESS” seems to have replaced “It’s for the children” as the excuse du jour for spending taxpayer dollars.

Yes, the Board of Education got a little more money than they received last year.  Contrary to popular opinion, I am not one of those who seems to believe that ten cents spent on public education is ten cents too much.  However, I do believe that the Board of Education continues to spend money on items that are questionable at best.  That should not be confused with a belief that the BOE throws millions of dollars into the fiscal dust bin.

I am also confident that State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello is pleased with this budget.  He requested some additional funds and received them during the council’s “feeding frenzy”.  Not all of the funds disbursed last Wednesday were bad calls.  It was the mouth foaming zeal in which council members spent other people’s money that was most disturbing.

THE BAD

We could provide a laundry list that goes on for days.  We’ll just list a few highlights:

A $12,500 raise for the county auditor?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  This isn’t a criticism of Steve Roser.  He may be the most competent guy in the world.  Unfortunately, the average taxpayer can’t point to much bang for their buck.  He or she certainly can’t understand a five figure raise.  This is the council’s fault more than Roser’s.  A majority of council insists on meeting with Roser in closed session.  While not in violation of the Open Meetings Act (their meetings are an “executive function” and exempt from the act), they certainly violate the spirit.  What projects has the council given Roser to tackle?  Nothing juicy or particularly beneficial to the taxpayer to be sure.  Councilmen Joe Holloway and Bob Culver requested a purchase card audit of the Board of Education.  The majority refused.  When Holloway and Culver threatened to bring the matter before the public, their colleagues reluctantly agreed – they just put it down at the bottom of the pile.  The taxpayers can expect something meaningful from the county auditor about the time Rick Pollitt’s grandchild is elected County Executive.

No money wasted?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  Two members of council actually had the temerity to tell me that the entire council went through every line of the budget detail and there was no money to be cut.  Please!  There is relatively no building going on in Wicomico County, yet we have three building inspectors on the county payroll.  One of those inspectors failed his commercial certification [at least] twice!  The council could have taken a hard look at Pollitt’s travel budget and the wisdom of paying an inflated salary for his Public Information Officer.  We can all agree to disagree on the certain expenditures, just don’t insult the taxpayer by claiming that there is no waste in the county budget!

While a 2% pay raise may be good if you’re a county employee, it’s not good if you are an average taxpayer.  This is not an argument against the raise for the Sheriff’s deputies.  I’m agnostic on that issue.  However, other county employees already were having their furloughs restored.  The two percent is equivalent to receiving a second pay raise in one year.  While homeowners and businesses are having their taxes increased, someone pushing paper in the GOB gets a raise.  The homeowner paying for that raise may not have seen his or her income increase in 5 years or more.  The small business owner may actually see his or her income DECREASE so they can have the honor of being generous to a bureaucrat.

THE UGLY

This budget season was ugly … REALLY UGLY!  Why?

The aforementioned feeding frenzy gets SECOND PRIZE.  Last year the council deliberated and showed great concern for every budget cut made.  On the same day that council met to vote on the FY 2012 budget, councilwoman Stevie Prettyman persuaded a majority of her colleagues to increase the real property rate by 1 cent.  The public then witnessed a frenzy over how to spend that money.  That was simply a prelude to what occurred last Wednesday.

This year Pollitt and County Administrator Wayne Strausburg dangled $600,000 under the noses of the council.  Every council member EXCEPT for Joe Holloway attacked the bait like a shark in chummed waters.  The speed at which six individuals could spent other people’s money was frightening.

FIRST PRIZE goes to County Executive Rick Pollitt.  Thanks to Pollitt, no informed citizen will ever trust the county’s budgeting process again.  Pollitt deliberately hid revenue from the council and the public.  While claiming to take a “conservative approach” to revenue forecasting, Pollitt shot himself in the foot each time he added to revenue side of the ledger (for the teacher pension shift and for the council feeding frenzy) without any changes to underlying assumptions of his revenue projections.  Sources within his administration admit that there is still projected revenue that was never disclosed to council or the public.  The public deserves a fairly presented budget.  Just because there is additional revenue DOES NOT mean that it must be spent.  Pollitt could try taking a tip from Sussex County.  The funds could be banked and used for infrastructure.  or … debt could be paid down.  or … the county’s pension system could be better funded.  or …

The GRAND PRIZE goes to BOTH Pollitt and the council for a lack of transparency.  Wicomico County’s idea of budget detail is pathetic.  Want to see a detailed budget?  Look at Salisbury’s.  Guess what?  Both the town and the county use the same accounting software – MUNIS.  To add insult, the “budget detail” for Wicomico County is not readily available to the public.  The Pollitt administration claims that the public can come and look at the budget detail.  Sorry Rick.  When you call and ask you are told no.  Besides, having to schlep down to the GOB between 8 and 5 simply doesn’t cut it in this digital age.

Primary blame lies with the Executive.  However, council has to share.  They could have demanded that a digital copy be made available on the county’s website.  They could have produced one of their own if Pollitt refused.  How can an informed public understand the process if the only document available is the “official budget” which is little more than a series of black holes for money.

NO BACKBONE, NO POLITICAL WILL

Last year I applauded the Wicomico County Council for doing an admirable job with the county budget.  I wish that I could say the same this year.  Sadly, intra-party squabbling, a fear of the Daily Times comparing the County Council to the Salisbury City Council, and an utter lack of political will to accomplish anything of substance has left the council at a crossroads.  Do they wish to serve the taxpayers who elected them, or simply serve as a rubber stamp for Pollitt and his new, improved, and totally smooth county administrator?  Time will tell.

Blaming Annapolis only goes so far.

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