- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Backlash against the Charles County commissioners’ approved $354.5 million fiscal 2015 budget has been swift and stark from local teachers and police outraged that the board did not include pay increases in its spending plan, despite a proposal that would have done so without raising taxes.
Passed on Tuesday evening on a 3-2 vote, the budget keeps the county’s property tax rate at $1.141 per $100 of assessed value and includes 1.8 and 2.1 percent funding increases for the school system and the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, respectively, but neither covers the departments’ requested pay increases.
Board President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) and Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) both voted against the budget — a 4.6 increase on the county’s current $339 million spending plan — citing their preference for a plan proposed by Kelly that would have provided pay raises to teachers, police, correctional officers and county staff and funded them without increasing taxes.
In a Wednesday robocall that went out to more than 16,500 parents, Charles County School Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said the budget “does not adequately fund the needs of our students or the opening of our new [St. Charles] high school.”
Hill said the budget only provides $2.9 million to open the high school, despite promises since 2008 that the county would provide $10 million.
“This lack of funding forces us to consider cuts to programs that may impact your child,” Hill said in the call.
A transcript of the call was later emailed to everyone on the school system’s mailing list, spokeswoman Katie O’Malley Simpson said.
The county issued a response Thursday signed by board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D), who voted in favor of the budget, stating that it allocates $7.7 million to the first-year operating costs of the school, “exactly what was requested by the Board of Education.”
County budget staff have reasoned that $7.7 million makes sense because senior students will not attend the school in its first year.
The Charles County Board of Education delayed adjourning its Tuesday meeting until after the commissioners had made their decision.
“I have never publicly chastised our public officials but I am today,” board Chairwoman Roberta S. Wise said. “We have jumped through hoops. We have bent over backwards and done everything they asked us to do. ... I am ashamed of our county officials.”
Meanwhile, the county’s sheriff’s deputies — who feel the lack of a pay increase violates their employment contracts — are considering possible legal action against the commissioners.
“That’s a possibility,” Charles County Fraternal Order of Police President Sgt. John Elliott said, adding that the FOP’s official response still needed to be decided by the full membership. “We’re not going to just roll over and let it go because the county code is pretty cut and dry.”
Elliott called it “unfortunate” that the commissioners did not fund pay raises for county police, correctional officers and teachers.
“That’s two things they’ve always been proud of and boasted about around election time is teachers and public safety,” he said. “They had a plan that was given by the other two commissioners that was not going to [raise taxes], and they just weren’t willing to listen. So, it is what it is, and maybe we can make some changes in this election.”
Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) said his department will require a minimum of 25 new officers in fiscal 2016 given the county’s population growth and said he worries that such a request may delay a pay increase for deputies another year.
“I’m disappointed, especially for the school system, and we all understand there’s only so much money, but Commissioner Kelly said she had a plan that would work it out,” Coffey said. “We absolutely have to have 25 officers next year. We’ve driven the crime down, but our calls for service are going up, and it absolutely makes a difference.”
Throughout the budget process, and again during the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting, Fiscal and Administrative Services Director Dave Eicholtz cautioned the commissioners against using one-time revenue sources to fund recurring costs like pay increases.
But Kelly’s plan resembled the one fiscal staff ultimately came up with to balance the county’s $10.2 million baseline deficit, except for a couple of key components; whereas the staff plan and approved budget removed one step salary increase for sheriff’s officers for a $300,000 savings and required the school boardto use $2.3 million of its own fund balance to help pay for the first-year costs of the high school, Kelly recommended taking $4 million from the cable fund to create a $3.2 million surplus, which would be used to fund two step increases for officers and pay raises for county staff, correctional officers and civilian sheriff’s employees.
Kelly’s plan also would have given the school system $3 million from the county’s $14 million developers rights and responsibilities agreement fund to make up for the difference between the allocated $7.7 million for the high school and the $10 million that was promised. With that extra funding, the board could help fund pay increases for teachers and support staff, Kelly said.
DRRA funds are generally earmarked for future school construction costs.
“I’m terribly disappointed. I think we had an opportunity here today to do right by our board of education [and our] teachers,” Kelly said after the budget passed. “I think we had an opportunity to really give the school system the tools it needs now that we’re opening this new school.”
The approved budget drew from a variety of sources to balance the baseline deficit, including a $3.5 million one-time recordation tax from a natural gas-fired power plant being built in Waldorf, $2.75 million from the county’s contingency reserves and the $2.3 million in board of education fund balance.
Using the one-time funding sources means the county’s fiscal 2016 budget will begin with a projected $3.6 million baseline deficit. Kelly’s plan would have increased that shortfall to more than $10 million.
Commissioner Bobby Rucci (D) said Tuesday it would be “irresponsible” to vote for a plan that paid for salary increases with one-time costs, thus adding to an fiscal 2016 deficit. Board Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) echoed Rucci’s concerns, stating the alternative preferred by Kelly and Robinson “would put us in a significant hole” in the fiscal 2016 budget.
Kelly said Thursday that the cable fund is a recurring revenue source, and every year it receives between $4 million and $5 million from Comcast and Verizon as part of the county’s franchise agreements with the two companies.
In a Facebook post responding to Hill’s robocall, Rucci wrote he was “disheartened that [Hill] would resort to robo calling parents with misleading information the day before early voting. This is not only politically motivated it is downright mean spirited to use scare tactics on our citizens.”
He also wrote that the school system “was funded the entire amount they requested to open the new high school.”
Collins said he expected some backlash, but “What I didn’t foresee was a direct robocall and emails from the superintendent. I think that’s really unprecedented.”
“That’s in their planning for the opening of the high school, the $7.7 [million]. There was a recognition from them that that’s what they would need for the opening of the school year,” Collins said. “I think the key is obviously presenting the public with facts. You can certainly surmise that the timing of all of this was to create some impact on the election, but I also believe that when people are presented with facts, then they look at things more objectively.”
Robinson called the shortfall that would have been created by Kelly’s plan “definitely manageable,” citing that it mirrored the same deficit the board balanced for fiscal 2015.
“It didn’t have to be all or nothing. It would have been a place to begin the discussion, but it was very clear that my three colleagues were pretty much set on what they were going to do before the meeting began,” he said.
Robinson said he “suspected” there would some outrage over the budget, but “in my wildest dreams never imagined it would be as intense as its been in the last 24 hours.
“I can tell you that in the last day, and I’ve lost count, that I’ve received several hundred emails of support because I did not vote to support that budget.”
The commissioners also voted to cut funding in the capital budget for the cross-county connector project in half, from $1 million to $500,000. The Indian Head Science and Technology Park will be purchased for $6.4 million using $2.7 million in capital budget surplus and $3.7 million in surplus from the county’s cable fund.
Commissioner Debra M. Davis, who also voted in support of the budget, did not return a message seeking comment.
Staff writer Gretchen Phillips contributed to this report.