The Frederick County Council approved County Executive Jan Gardner’s $717 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year by a 6-1 vote Tuesday evening.
The fiscal 2022 spending plan represents an increase of nearly 8 percent from the previous budget. It includes a historically high investment of about $365 million in education, $21.5 million above the state-required funding. Fiscal 2022 begins July 1.
For the seventh straight year, the county’s property tax rate will remain at $1.06 per $100 of assessed home value. In recent weeks, council members Steve McKay (R) and Phil Dacey (R) fought unsuccessfully to reduce that rate to $1.033. That would have required cutting more than $6 million from the budget.
Dacey — the only member to vote against the budget and the property tax rate — and McKay each raised that issue again Tuesday, expressing concern that the county’s spending was climbing too quickly. But the debate was short-lived.
“This horse is dead in the gutter, and it’s a bloody mess now,” said County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D).
By Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s hands were tied, McKay acknowledged. Over a series of recent workshops, he and Dacey failed to garner support for trimming the budget — making its passage as proposed essentially a foregone conclusion. Under the county charter, the council is required to approve a property tax rate that will match up with the budget.
Still, Dacey argued the council had a responsibility to soften the impact of the county’s “skyrocketing” property values, which mean residents’ property taxes will continue to increase regardless of a flat tax rate.
Dacey and McKay said they were alarmed to see Gardner’s budgets grow by 18.9 percent over the course of three years — though McKay said he broadly supported almost all of the programs in this year’s budget.
Other members, such as Jerry Donald (D), said the budget represented a responsible use of taxpayer money and that residents struggling to pay higher property taxes had an array of abatement programs they could take advantage of.
The county budget is growing because the county itself is, Donald said, and increasing property values are a sign that “Frederick County is a good place to live.”
Gardner has referred to this year’s budget as a three-year catch-up. When spread out over that period, she said, the increase in county spending matches up to average growth of other jurisdictions across the state.
The divide on the council comes down to a “philosophical difference,” Dacey said. Rather than asking how much money the county has available to spend, he said the council should ask, “What can the county get by on?”
Council member Kai Hagen (D) pushed back.
“Sometimes our goal is a little more than just getting by,” he said.
After education — which represents about 51 percent of the county’s operating budget — the next highest-funded category is public safety, followed by public works and parks and recreation.
The budget includes funding for the county health department to open a satellite location on the Golden Mile to address health disparities and provide services to the largely minority communities of West Frederick. During the coronavirus pandemic, Frederick County’s Hispanic population has seen a disproportionately high rate of infection.
It also accounts for a new pay scale that will ensure all county employees make at least $15 per hour and allocates $1 million to boost broadband service in rural areas of the county.