Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Tough choices await on town spending plan

Commissioners intend to weather budget crunch without dipping into reserves

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Upper Marlboro’s board of town commissioners is getting to work early on next year’s budget to make the ‘‘hard choices” needed to balance it.

The commissioners’ goal is to come up with a balanced budget that does not require much of the town’s $2.4 million reserve fund. The fiscal 2007 budget took $147,000 from the unrestricted fund, and the current year’s budget is calling for $25,000.

‘‘We, like other municipalities, are facing increasing costs and decreasing revenues, so we’re going to have some hard choices to make,” commission president Steve Sonnett said.

‘‘The process is to first look at our current operations and see where we can save without cutting services or raising taxes,” Sonnett said. ‘‘Then it’s up to the people once you’re running efficiently — do you cut services or ask for more money?”

Sonnett said commissioners agreed to tackle the budget early and in public, ‘‘so everybody understands what’s happening.”

Their goal is to have a draft available for public comment at the April 8 town hall meeting, about two months before the process must be completed. The town’s fiscal year begins July 1, but the government must have its budget prepared 20 days in advance.

Commission treasurer George Leonnig said the first step is to get a report of the town’s actual revenues and expenses through the second half of 2007 to see where the government stands.

‘‘That pretty much determines what we do in the next budget,” Leonnig said.

For example, Leonnig said, the town probably spent more on gas for its public works and police fleets than was budgeted for last year because of rising fuel costs.

Adding to the challenge, some revenue sources are unpredictable.

‘‘A lot of the money that comes in isn’t in our control, things like parking meters,” commissioner Jay Hourclé said. ‘‘We can set the fine rate, we can set the time on the meter, but we can’t control if people park or don’t park, or how long they stay.”

But the bulk of revenue — coming from real estate, property and income taxes — does not change much from one year to the next unless taxes are increased, Sonnett said.

This fiscal year’s budget is calling for $103,000, or 14 percent of revenue, to come from meters and fines, and $414,180, or 57 percent, to come from taxes.

While the commissioners want to protect the town’s $2.4 million reserve fund — its savings account — as much as possible, Leonnig said tapping into it remains a possibility.

‘‘It’s not unheard of that you use the reserve fund to fill in the gap,” he said.

The commissioners also have identified a number of town issues, such as capital improvements, they would like to address in the coming fiscal year, but which are closely tied to finances.

Sonnett and Hourclé expressed an interest in reusing the public works facility behind the fire station. The previous commissioners condemned the area and moved the town’s public works equipment to a nearby State Highway Administration facility.

One of the buildings has large cracks in its cinderblock foundation, and a county evaluation of the property found it could face problems with hazardous chemicals being stored there, which the town would have to clean up if it wants to use the facility again.

The commissioners also will evaluate the 10-year capital infrastructure outlay program, a plan the previous commissioners devised for gradually rehabilitating the town’s roads and equipment.

‘‘We have to take a hard look at this and see what is realistic or not,” Sonnett said.