Escalating real estate values in Wicomico County, federal pandemic aid and a projected bounceback in income tax revenues have allowed Acting County Executive John Psota to propose a fiscal 2023 budget that increases spending by 7.3 percent.
Under the county’s Revenue Cap that restrains the amount of money Wicomico can collect from property taxes, property taxes would actually decrease by a penny – from .09195 cents per $100 of assessed value to .09070 cents.
The owner of a median-valued $250,000 home who now pays $2,299 annually in county taxes would now pay $2,267 – an annual $32 savings. Cutting the tax rate by a penny reduces county revenue by about $600,000.
Psota’s proposed spending plan totals $173.91 million, a $12.22 million year-over-year increase. A significant portion of the 7.3 percent increase would go to paying to implement recommendations of a commissioned pay study that has called for county employee pay increases for employees.
The goal is to make salaries competitive within the labor market, as the county has experienced turnover and an inability to recruit qualified employees.
“I believe (the budget) makes the best use of available resources to provide a level of service our citizens expect and deserve,” Psota said in his budget letter to the County Council. “The primary focus of this budget is to effectively address Wicomico County's core service needs: public safety and health, education and infrastructure.”
The federal American Rescue Plan will add nearly $4 million to the county’s coffers. The county will also tap about $4.9 million from the prior/year fund balance.
Psota proposes borrowing $23.4 million to fund the Capital Improvement Plan, with money primarily going to school construction and a new Public Safety Building for the Wicomico Sheriff’s Office.
Psota’s proposed spending plan also addresses recruitment and retention of volunteer first-responders in volunteer fire companies.
He is recommending the implementation of a Length of Service Award for volunteer fire and EMS members that would allow for a payment to volunteers that have reached 5-plus years of credited service.
The initial payment would be $1,000 for five years of service. At each five-year increment, an additional $1,000 would be added – 10 years: $2,000; 15 years: $3,000, etc. – capped at 25 years of service.
The goal is to incentivize all volunteers. The Acting County Executive has also recommended increasing the payments to each volunteer company by $15,000 for their operating grants, and $50,000 for their EMT grant.
As outlined in the Wicomico Board of Education’s budget proposal released earlier this month, the school system’s Maintenance of Effort figure will increase by approximately $1.28 million, which is the extra amount the board is requesting from the county.
Under the capital plan, Psota would continue funding the Mardela Middle and High School renovation and construction, as well as a roof renovation at various buildings at Wicomico High School.
This budget also includes $325,000 in funding to allow for continuation of efforts to provide county sewer service in areas experiencing failing septic systems.
“Since the state permitting process for such facilities is challenging and time consuming, I feel it is necessary to provide relief for those households experiencing these failures,” Psota said.
“Therefore, I am recommending the establishment of a $500,000 grant fund to help homeowners who have failing septic systems.”
The septic system fund criteria, he said, are still being evaluated and when fully developed will be announced. Both of these projects will be funded using the American Rescue Plan funds.
“We in Wicomico County face the same economic challenges and uncertainty as the rest of the country at this time,” Psota said. “My proposed budget reflects our best effort to meet those challenges given our current circumstances.”