Budget Time in Frederick County

“The honeymoon’s over,” County Councilman Billy Shreve (R-At Large) declared at Tuesday’s meeting of the Frederick County Council.  Sure enough, the new Frederick County Council is almost five months into their term and is currently dealing with quite a variety of issues, including a few of major interest to citizens of the county.

County Executive Jan Gardner (D) recently submitted her first budget to the council, which has begun to hold hearings and workshops.  According to the county’s website, the council has until May 25 to make any changes to the budget and pass it, otherwise the County Executive’s budget will take effect automatically.  Also according to the county’s website: “the council may reduce or delete items in the proposed budget, but may not add items to it or increase any proposed expenditure, except for increases above the Board of Education’s Maintenance of Effort requirement.”

The County Council held its first budget hearing on Monday to hear public comment on the portion of the budget that is dedicated to the Frederick County Board of Education (BOE) – 47% of the total FY 2016 proposed budget.  This year’s proposed budget increases county funding for the BOE by $5.7 Million, which is $4.2 Million over the mandated “maintenance of effort” (MOE) levels.  The proposed county budget also includes an additional $84.8 Million for capital projects such as replacement of the aging Frederick High School.

Predictably, many of the parents, teachers, students, union leaders, and others who spoke complained of a lack of funding.  Gary Brennan, President of the Frederick County Teachers Association gave severe warnings of cuts in services.  A teacher from Brunswick proclaimed that we have “a great school system that is on the edge” – an example of the doublespeak repeated throughout the hearing.

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One parent happily stated that Frederick County schools were clearly the best schools she had encountered after living in several eastern states, yet teachers and students complained of “extremely challenging conditions” – a description one would better associate with schools in a third-world country.  Another teacher claimed that in one class there simply wasn’t enough money to buy paper for homework to last through the school year.  Another claimed that lack of funds to help poorer students forced those students to turn to lives of crime and selling drugs to make ends meet.

Councilman Shreve endorsed a proposal by one speaker to set up an endowment fund for the community to contribute to in support of the school system.  Councilmen Chmelik (R-2) and Delauter (R-5) agreed with the proposal as well.  Delauter noted that a balance must be kept that funds the schools but also keeps taxes low enough to attract businesses who will, in turn, bring more funding.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the council members heard a presentation and public comments on the remainder of the County Executive’s proposed budget.  In addition to the Board of Education’s 47% of the budget, county departments are set to receive 36%, 7% goes to debt, 3% to Frederick Community College, 2% to capital projects, 2% to the public library system, 1% to municipalities, and 2% to “other”.

The presentation highlighted increases of $512,292 for four new sheriff’s deputies, $771,100 for ten new firefighters, $189,750 for snow removal, and $70,365 for Meals on Wheels, as well as funds for several other departments and projects.  The Board of Elections is set to receive $383,211 for a new voting system mandated by the state and $25,000 for increases to pay for election judges.

In addition to the budget hearing, Tuesday’s meeting covered several other topics such as consideration of an application to designate a property known as Trout Run as a historic site in order to allow for use as a drug rehab facility by a Scientologist organization.  The council also approved appointments from the County Executive, three budget transfers, preservation of 11 farms, and four amendments to the county’s Water and Sewerage Plan.  Several residents commented on a controversial planned development known as the Monrovia Town Center, which the County Council is set to address in the near future.

So yes, “the honeymoon’s over” – and Frederick County citizens should pay close attention.

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