In a major shift from last year, no residents called in Tuesday night to offer their thoughts on the proposed property tax rate for the upcoming budget.
The property tax rate debate has been a fixture of budget season for the past several years. County Executive Jan Gardner (D) has proposed keeping the rate at $1.06 per $100 of assessed value, the same as her previous six budgets while serving in county government's top post.
But some council members and citizens believe the tax rate should drop to the constant yield rate, which would collect the same amount of property tax revenue as the fiscal 2021 budget, about $352.7 million. That rate would be about $1.033 per $100 of assessed value.
Last year, more than 150 residents called in or wrote to support the constant yield rate, with a handful supporting the $1.06 rate. No one testified via phone this year, but Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) said after Tuesday's meeting dozens of people had signed on to an email petition in support of the constant yield tax rate.
In order to get there, County Council would need to cut roughly $6.7 million from Gardner’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget. The operating budget, if approved, would be about $717.2 million.
Those who have tried to trim from previous budgets have included County Councilmen Phil Dacey (R) and Steve McKay (R). They and other council members did not introduce any amendments at Tuesday’s meeting, but Keegan-Ayer told her colleagues to get any proposals into the council's Legislative Director/Chief of Staff Ragen Cherney by the end of Friday in order to debate them next week.
Dacey and McKay indicated before the meeting Tuesday they are interested in introducing amendments to cut from the budget but were still finalizing details.
McKay said cuts are important to consider because of the budgeted fund balance every year—the amount of money county officials underestimated in revenues and overestimated in expenses. Since that’s in the tens of millions of dollars, it's important to consider trimming the budget, he said.
He didn’t rule out cutting into maintenance of effort funding for public schools—Gardner’s proposal allocates $20 million above the state-mandated minimum requirement, a record investment. Dacey said he was going to take "a hard look" at that money given enrollment decreases in the 2020-21 school year.
Dacey noted every incumbent candidate for the Board of Education running for reelection was voted out last fall—Rae Gallagher and Lois Jarman lost their seats, and Michael Bunitsky did not run for a second term.
He called some Board of Education decisions “self-inflicted wounds,” including when the board jumped back between two days a week of in-person instruction and four days a week, as the board and local teachers' union debated those decisions.
“That doesn’t sit well with me … I don’t like rewarding the Board of Education when they performed very poorly and made some bad decisions for our kids,” Dacey said.
Councilman Jerry Donald (D), who teaches at Middletown High School, said it’s up to the Board of Education to spend its budget as it sees fit. He’s willing to see amendments offered by McKay or Dacey but appeared supportive of Gardner’s investment in education.
“What people need to realize is that the education budget was at the maintenance of effort level for so many years,” Donald said before Tuesday's meeting. “Jan has really pushed to fund education since FY2016 [fiscal 2016] and I’ve supported that, but in effect you’re making up for years of neglect.”
Keegan-Ayer shared a similar view, especially due to challenges because of the pandemic. She said she would listen to Dacey and McKay's amendments, but it would be tough to change her mind on education.
"In my mind, the educational system in Frederick County needs money to repair the holes that were left in the educational foundation because of this pandemic," Keegan-Ayer said. "Sometimes, you do have to make hard decisions knowing you're going to have to come back and fill those holes later on … we have to be willing to invest some money in order to repair that foundation."
Per the county charter, council members must approve a tax rate and budget by the end of the month. If a majority, or four council members, can’t agree on one, then Gardner’s proposal is adopted.