CAMBRIDGE — Following the introduction of the FY2016 Budget and Appropriations Ordinance in April, advertising public hearings, and taking testimony from interested citizens, county attorney Thomas Merryweather announced the county budget was ready “for disposition” at the May 19 Dorchester County Council meeting.
During public hearings numerous citizens expressed passionate opinions in favor of building a new North Dorchester County High School (NDHS). Representatives from various tax exempt groups and government agencies also advocated. Several of those requests made their way into the FY16 budget.
Finance director Michael Spears described additions to the draft budget including: $10,000 grass cutting of tax-held properties; $5,000 for the Dorchester County Historical Society; $10,000 for an accreditation initiative for the department of social services; $36,340 local match to FEMA assistance to firefighters grant; $118,947 for an acreage expansion; $70,516 increased cost for a landfill compacter; personnel costs in the Sheriff’s department; attorney’s salary to the Safe Streets grant budget. Reductions included: $13,732 for staff turnover in corrections department; some personnel changes.
Councilman Rick Price asked Mr. Spears to restate “for the record” what he has told the council regarding the status of a tax increase and how “anything we’ve done will impact our taxes, not this year but in subsequent years.” Director Spears said that about $3 million will be budgeted in the next two fiscal years for planning and designing the new school. He said a $17+ million bond will be issued in July 2017 to pay the local share of construction costs. That will show up in the FY18 budget. “Given our current revenue projections we don’t see any real growth in the numbers. Our assessments only give us about a two-year outlook.”
Mr. Spears “sees signs that our income taxes are growing and recordation tax is recovering.” But the director noted that he does not feel it will be enough to pay debt service on the school project. He hopes to design a bond plus some savings that minimize any potential tax rate increase but it will be inadequate to pay the debt service. The tax rate increase would be “in the 2¢ range.” On average, according to prior calculations, it would require a $60-100 property tax increase.
The budget ordinance passed 3-2 with councilmen Price and William Nichols voting “no.”
Councilman Don Satterfield said he felt the budget process went “extremely well” despite points where “we didn’t agree but we agreed to disagree.” He appreciated funding to the sheriff’s department and the “slight increase in pay” to county personnel. He favored the new high school and noted he had discussed the resultant tax increases with the council and finance department to find ways to “offset the impact on seniors and people who are on fixed incomes.”
Councilman William Nichols, who is noted for fervently expressing his opinions, said he voted “no” based on his promise to citizens not to raise taxes to build a school. “It hasn’t been done in the 21 years” he has been on the council. Referencing internet posts on Facebook that he had learned of, he said “I was ashamed of some attacks that were used to denigrate a councilman.”
Mr. Nichols held up a copy of a 2005 Daily Banner in which he had predicted a funding shortfall. “We did the same thing with this budget,” he said. The councilman cited the 2009 Technology School as a “taj mahal,” saying that $37million should have been used for the new high school. He added the project has been “pushed off for 16 years; not by the council but by the school board.”
He said he is speaking for the people who are not in favor of raising taxes. He mentioned the state-mandated radio system “coming up for about $10 million. Sometimes you can’t have it all even though you want it all.”
Councilman Price commented that his two concerns are the high school and its attendant tax increases; and additional state mandates potentially requiring tax increases. “I agree with and support efforts for a new school and am very concerned about the health and safety of students.” But, he explained, the budget “dumps the problem in the laps of future council members and future taxpayers.” He said the county’s share of the costs will have to be funded with at least a 2.2 percent property tax increase in two to three years. “One group of constituents feels strongly and vocally that the new school should be funded in spite of tax increases; the second group includes people who are older, on fixed incomes, and struggling to pay household bills.”
Mr. Price noted he spoke with the state comptroller’s office and the department of education regarding local funding. He was told that due to a state labor law, construction costs will increase by 8 percent. The state’s contribution to the county’s funding portion will not. Increased costs would fall to the local government, according to the councilman’s conversations.
President Travers said he and the council listened to those who spoke at the public hearings and said they will still be “looking outside the box for funding the new school.”
FY2016 expenditures increased by about $2 million over FY2015; the highest increases are in Public Safety and Economic Development. Including Special Revenue, Enterprise, and Fiduciary funds, the increase totals about $9 million. Revenues are anticipated to match expenses for a balanced budget. The full budget is available on the county council’s website.