HOLLYWOOD, Md. (May 27, 2021)—On a 3-to-2 vote the Commissioners of St. Mary's County passed a $288 million operating budget which provides increased funding to schools and law enforcement along with reduced income tax rates, but the increases still fell short of what had been requested by the school board or sheriff's office.
Commissioners on either side of the funding issues also clashed over which side was engaging in fiscal discipline.
Commissioner Eric Colvin supported a motion made by Commissioner John O'Connor to restore 38 full time emergency responder positions in the budget using EMS billing and the emergency services support fund; his motion also called for using $11 million in federal recovery dollars to increase the sheriff's office pay scale 5 percent and use money from the commissioners reserve for snow removal to fully fund the $114.8 million request from the school board to fulfill their negotiated employment compensation agreements.
The current budget reduced the number of emergency medical technicians to be hired to just 16 with four additional paid paramedics.
"I think we've got a really good opportunity here, we're so close to having an amazingly perfect budget, where we have all the funds to meet everyone's needs," Colvin said. "We've heard from the community about what the community wants … from all the sides of the aisle."
The needs of rescue squads Colvin mentioned particularly, since they are desirous of paid positions to staff their stations during the day when volunteers are most scarce.
"We asked them what they need, they came back and told us and then at the last minute we changed the plan without consulting them," Colvin said. "They noticed that."
Commissioner Todd Morgan said the budget process was "one of discipline."
"Discipline's tough, it's very hard," Morgan continued. "It sets you in a position where you can be consistent."
He warned that fiscal discipline was being relaxed and that engaging in that practice now would only increase its use in the future budget cycles.
"Would that be you including the lack of fiscal discipline for throwing $2.5 million for turf fields at the last minute?" O'Connor asked, noting last week's decision to move money to pay for turf fields at all county high schools with no prior discussion during the fiscal 2022 budget process.
Morgan did not immediately reply but said in a later interview that the school board had suggested the idea to the commissioners.
"The board of education came to us, we didn't make this up," Morgan said. "This is a one-time, non-recurring cost."
"What we're talking about here is two sources of money," said Commissioner Mike Hewitt on the difference between operating money and capital construction project money, which was for turf fields.
Hewitt reiterated that increases in spending on the school board and sheriff's office had to be considered as recurring costs, for which the commissioners would have to provide for each year.
"The thing with this projection of [higher] revenues, I have said before and I'll say again, I just need to see these revenues come in," Hewitt said.
Hewitt has been skeptical of enhanced revenues in both income and property taxes because of the economy being supported by Federal Reserve dollars, which is essentially debt, that could not always be depended upon.
"We haven't seen the real impacts from 2020," Hewitt said. "And I believe they're going to be impacted by COVID-19.
"I believe the stimulus money that's come from the feds and the state has masked the real economy … it's just not a smooth recovery."
Hewitt said that spending on turf fields was not a recurring cost and that it was supported by the school board to support student sports activities.
Hewitt said higher salaries were possible for teachers and deputies later this summer when the county received its disbursements of tax revenues, as long as they matched the increased projections upon which their budgeting was based.
Hewitt opposed O'Connor's motion, as did Commissioner President James "Randy" Guy.
"We have to look farther than what's in front of our faces," Guy said. "We have to look out a couple of years here.
"I'd like to see it [our funding] here; we may not see that until November."
The motion failed on a 3-to-2 vote; but commissioners had unanimously approved a prior motion to move $207,000 from the commissioners reserve for snow removal to redistributed to salaries for sheriff's office, school board and other county employees.