Gazette article on FoFC meeting with Commissioner Gray on FY2012 budget
Published: Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Commissioner finds friends in opposition to budget by Margarita Raycheva and Sherry Greenfield
Frederick County Commissioner David P. Gray (R) does not stand alone in his opposition to the county’s’ $449 million budget for next year.
Friends of Frederick County is backing Gray’s concerns about the way commissioners developed the fiscal 2012 budget, and is questioning if commissioners gave residents a real opportunity to participate in the process.
While Friends of Frederick County typically focuses on land use, land preservation and sustainability issues, it also advocates that residents become involved in government affairs, said Janice Wiles, director of the nonprofit.
And the group is concerned that the public may not have had all the information it needed to understand the full impact of commissioners’ budget decisions, Wiles said on Tuesday when she met with Gray and a few other concerned people about the budget process.
“There is a need to get the information to the public,” Wiles said.
One of the main concerns of the group was the way commissioners emphasized budget shortages, and talked about a structural deficit and financial difficulties, when in fact the county expects to finish fiscal 2011 on June 30 with a $20 million surplus.
In addition, the fiscal 2012 budget is nearly $11 million more than fiscal 2011.
And yet the majority of commissioners chose to move forward with cuts, pulling $2.3 million from the federal Head Start program, $125,710 in funding to the grant-in-aid agencies, $179,359 to non-county agencies, and either eliminated or downgraded 175 county positions, which saved $8.4 million.
In addition, the county cut $850,000 in health programs and $300,000 from nonprofit agencies.
“It’s not that we don’t have the money … It’s all about the choices that commissioners made,” said Wiles, adding that her group will gather information and educate the public about the true impact of such cuts.
“We hope to be able to air some of these grievances,” Wiles said. “We hope to be able to be more ahead of the game in the future.”
Gray agreed, and said he will continue to hold forums with residents, speak up at meetings, and try to help residents understand the impact that the decisions made by the commissioners will have on their lives.
Gray said commissioners oversimplified the budget and did not give the public enough time to offer input. He also criticized his colleagues for not spending enough time discussing the budget and suggested that Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) made every budget decision with unconditional approval from commissioners Kirby Delauter (R), Billy Shreve (R) and C. Paul Smith (R).
He said the budget released to the public this year lacked comparisons to previous years, and didn’t allow residents to analyze and compare it to past budgets.
Gray, who has helped craft and adopt 16 operating budgets in his tenure, said he even had difficulty finding the full budget information. “We have kept this information too far away from the public,” he said on Tuesday. “I’ve just never seen anything … like this before.”
Young agreed with Gray on Tuesday that commissioners could have used the additional $11 million in spending to balance the budget. But that would not have resolved any of the county’s long-term financial problems, he said.
Commissioners wanted to bring the county onto solid ground financially, and the only way to do that in the long-term was to eliminate some recurring expenses, he said.
Young said that much of that additional $11 million was created by cuts the board made in March. Commissioners decided to put the money back into funds that would make the county more stable financially, including a fire tax fund, a debt service fund and the county’s fund for retiree health benefits.
“If you don’t care about the budget structurally, they are right,” he said. “But to me that would have just been kicking the can down the road.”
Young also said that commissioners have always had time for public comment at their meetings, and residents can contact them if they had any concerns. He said the board this year had the same opportunities for public comment, input and response as it always had before.
Gray raised similar concerns on June 2, when he became the only commissioner on the board to vote against the fiscal 2012 spending plan.
Gray said that in years past, budget discussions took place in open session and over several months. Commissioners would debate each budget decision before voting.
The current board released a balanced budget March 8, three months before its adoption. A public hearing was held in April, but attendance was sparse, especially compared to similar hearings of the past that filled high school auditoriums and attracted dozens of speakers.
Gray’s colleagues took exception with his accusations.
“I didn’t vote for anything in lock step,” Delauter said at the June 2 meeting. “I have my own mind and I vote my own mind. You’re really putting some things out there that are misleading. Even being here one day a week, my business is taking a hit. We can do this one day week. It’s not rocket science.”
Delauter, who owns a construction company in Emmitsburg, reminded Gray that he, along with Shreve, Smith and Young were elected to bring more jobs to the county and cut costs. “What we were brought here for was to streamline the process for businesses, and that will bring in more revenues,” he said.
Smith agreed. “I’m in here virtually every day and I’ve spent a lot of time going over this,” Smith said. “The big picture is the budget, which I support. With the economy the way it is we have lost many revenues. These things contributed to our problems. We’ve had to make some tough decisions. You either increase taxes or cut programs.”
The budget is based on the property tax rate holding steady at 93.6 cents per $100 of assessed value. Constant yield, the rate the county would have to charge to collect the same amount of property taxes next year, is 96.6 cents.
© 2011 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc./Gazette.Net