Frederick County Council members will soon dive into County Executive Jan Gardner’s $717.2 million budget proposal, a nearly 8 percent increase from the fiscal 2021 operating budget.
The process could take a similar shape to prior years, even as county officials navigate their way through the coronavirus pandemic and slowly recovering economy.
But the county executive said in an interview earlier this month she viewed this budget as a three-year catch-up on overall revenue, noting the increase in property tax (about $17 million) and income tax (about $18.3 million) this past budget year.
In her initial budget address, Gardner (D) noted she spent $20 million above maintenance of effort, the state requirement, for Frederick County Public Schools, a historic investment. She admitted this year’s jump was larger than normal, but when weighed out over a three-year or even longer period of time, it reflects average growth when compared to other jurisdictions statewide.
Gardner often will study other counties’ budgets to see how much and where they are spending. She believes her proposal helps the most vulnerable in the community and helps start to solve inequities in public health, business opportunities and elsewhere in the community.
“I think we have a really unique opportunity now to not just recover, but to be even better than we were before, because we can try to lift everybody to enjoy the opportunities and the prosperity that we have in our community,” Gardner said. “And that’s what this budget is all about.”
Council members will spend much of next week reviewing the budget in greater detail with county leaders. But here are some of their initial thoughts.
County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D)
Keegan-Ayer is supportive of Gardner’s budget, especially projects that benefit Council District 3, her jurisdiction. That covers most of the west side of Frederick.
Gardner’s proposal includes money for opening a community health center on the Golden Mile and future capital projects for a library and school improvements in Keegan-Ayer’s district. The council president was also happy Gardner invested a historic amount in public education.
Kids have been suffering not just academically, but emotionally and socially, Keegan-Ayer said.
“I think we are going to have a great deal of work to do to recoup the losses our students have endured because of the pandemic — we are going to have a lot of backfilling,” Keegan-Ayer said.
At the heart of most budget debates is the corresponding property tax rate. Gardner proposed to leave it at $1.06 per $100 of assessed value, the same rate as her previous seven budgets. The council has the ability to cut to the constant yield tax rate—about $1.033—which would bring property tax revenues in line with fiscal 2021.
Even though Keegan-Ayer knows debate will happen, she’s committed to leaving the tax rate unchanged for now.
“This is a tug-of-war we have every year between whether or not we chose to invest in our county, invest in our kids or whether we hold static,” Keegan-Ayer said.
County Council Vice President Michael Blue (R)Blue said Gardner’s proposal is rather large, as it amounts to a more than 7 percent increase over last year’s budget. He said he’d like to see growth at around 4 or 5 percent.
Still, he likes the investments in public safety, namely for improvements at the county’s detention center, law enforcement officers and the fire and rescue services.
He is concerned about the rise in the cost of living for most Frederick County residents, but he added part of that is because so many people want to move here.
The council vice president isn’t opposed to cutting from the budget to get to constant yield, but he admitted the odds are difficult without a freeze in pay increases or hiring staff or cutting some services. He agreed with Gardner this is a catch-up year compared to last year’s budget.
“I’ll listen to any of the amendments and see what their merits are, but it’s going to be really tough to get four votes to get us almost $7 million cut to get down to the constant yield,” Blue said.
County Councilman Jerry Donald (D)
Donald is happy with the capital projects in his district, which spans the southeastern part of the county. Those include sidewalk improvements in Braddock Heights, a library in Middletown and improvements to Brunswick Elementary School.
He’s also happy revenues appear stable as officials still navigate through the pandemic. He hopes the historic spending above maintenance of effort can help with teacher hiring and retention.
As for the tax debate, Donald believes as long as the rate is kept flat, residents should understand taxes come down to assessments done by the State Department of Assessments and Taxation.
And even with the cuts, he argued the savings would be minimal to the average family, around $8 a month.
“That’s not going to affect anybody’s budget … I think people understand if you’re keeping the rate the same, you’re keeping it at the same rate, [and] I think that’s pretty good … I think it’s going to fund projects, and trying to retain employees that are very important to the county,” Donald said.
County Councilman Phil Dacey (R)
Dacey has been perhaps the most vocal in his time during this council in trying to lower the property tax rate to constant yield. He voted “no” on keeping the property tax rate at $1.06 the prior two years.
He supported Gardner’s proposed budget in 2019, but not last year. Education is important to him, he said, and he mostly supports Gardner’s investment above maintenance of effort. But he added he would “be taking a hard look” there and elsewhere to see where to cut more than $6 million to get down to the constant yield rate.
Dacey understands there is competition for county and public school employees throughout the region, yet he noted it is “a fool’s game” to compete with some of the richest jurisdictions in the country. Overall, the bottom line of the operating budget is “jaw-dropping,” he said.
Dacey and Councilman Steve McKay (R) have mostly led the charge on trying to cut from the budget to get to the constant yield rate in previous years, although Donald and others have also floated proposals.
“Hopefully between the two of us, we can recruit a few more allies on some budget cuts,” Dacey said of him and McKay. “I’ve had 20 budget cuts over the last two years, and one was accepted last year, [so] our batting average isn’t great … but maybe that last year’s cut showed some progress.”
During its meeting Tuesday, Chief Administrative Officer Rick Harcum and Budget Director Kelly Weaver will provide a greater overview of the overall operating and capital budgets.
Then, over the next three days, council members will spend hours talking to division directors about their requests and overall budget needs.
A public hearing on the proposed tax rate is scheduled for May 4.
The council can cut from Gardner’s budget — except for some aspects of education funding — but members can not move money around. They must approve some budget by the end of May or Gardner’s proposal becomes law, per the county charter.