The $516.3 million county spending plan finalized Thursday will stick to a state-mandated baseline for school funding and will overhaul the way money is gathered for emergency services.
Four Frederick County commissioners voted to pass the operating budget for fiscal 2014, which will begin July 1. The new budget is roughly $45 million larger than last year's, primarily because it includes about $40 million in emergency services costs that previously were in a separate fund.
Citizen comment on the budget has centered on the commissioners' determination to support county public schools at the per-pupil minimum required by state law. School officials and parents had asked that commissioners provide an additional $15 million to the Board of Education, in addition to the roughly $244 million contribution already budgeted. They argued that taking into account inflation and rising costs, a static level of education funding actually ends up feeling like a decrease in county support.
Commissioners said they decided against beefing up their per-student contribution in part because it would commit the county to the higher level of funding in future years, an unwise move in a time of fiscal uncertainty. Even without the increase, the county is not skimping on its support for schools, Commissioner Paul Smith said.
"The maintenance of effort level we are funding is a level of excellence," said Smith, who prepared a four-page statement explaining his stance on school funding.
However, commissioners directed additional funds toward county schools through the fiscal 2014 capital budget, which they approved unanimously. The capital plan includes one-time allocations of $1.6 million for school bus radios and $700,000 for school security upgrades, as well as additional funding for maintenance projects and technology improvements.
The operating budget approved Thursday will raise overall tax rates for about 23 percent of county property owners through sweeping changes to emergency services funding.
The overhaul will abolish the fire tax and simultaneously raise property taxes from 93.6 cents per $100 of assessed value to $1.064 per $100 of assessed value. The changes will result in no net increase for most property owners, but some will see their combined rate jump by 4.8 cents per $100.
Commissioners President Blaine Young said the changes were necessitated by large shortfalls in the fire and rescue fund. Increasing taxes on some residents is preferable to slashing emergency services staffing or salaries, he said.
In addition, moving emergency services into the general fund allows it to take its place as one of the county's core services, Young said.
Commissioner David Gray, who voted against the operating budget, said he didn't agree with the changes to the fire and rescue system and didn't approve of the fiscal plan's cuts to grant-in-aid funding. The board majority's decision to move forward with the budget demonstrates lack of interest in the wishes of the community, he argued.
"We had the required public hearings, but the process really did not involve the public in a really meaningful way," Gray said.
Also included in the operating budget is a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment and merit step increase for county employees.
Eliminating vacant positions resulted in $1 million in budgetary savings this year, according to a county news release. The release also noted that since 2009, the county workforce has shrunk by 432 positions.
The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday also signed off on the $69 million capital budget for fiscal 2014 and a six-year plan for capital improvements.
The plan accelerated the design phase of the Urbana Area Elementary School project by one year.