With a flurry of last-minute changes Tuesday afternoon, St. Mary's County commissioners approved a nearly $139 million general fund budget and local tax rates for 2005.
"A lot went down in a few minutes," Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners, said of the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The commissioners nudged the income tax rate down, so that county residents will pay 3.05 percent of their state tax bill to the county, down from 3.1 percent. They also decreased property taxes slightly. Those actions could mean a total annual reduction of more than $1 million in tax revenue, McKay said.
They gave a cost-of-living increase to county employees, bumping it up from the 2 percent that was originally budgeted to 2.5 percent, and agreeing that the raise should start July 1 rather than January.
They voted, through a series of quick proposals, to increase pay and promotion opportunities for some sheriff's deputies and to hire new ones.
They spent much of the spring in sometimes testy negotiations with Sheriff David D. Zylak (D), whose request for an additional $3.5 million for his department was met with deep skepticism.
He didn't get everything he wanted. But by the end of the day Tuesday, he was getting an additional $232,000 or so, for a total of $18.7 million. Next year's budget will increase funding to the sheriff by more than 8 percent over this year's budget.
Just last week, the commissioners were talking about a 6 percent increase.
"He had a great day," McKay said. "He also was given clear direction -- in the future he needs to make sure his budget request is in line with the growth of county government."
They approved a motion by Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) to fund three new deputies, on the condition that the sheriff ensures that resource officers continue to work in the high schools. At one point in Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) laughed that his motion to give the sheriff's office an extra $100,000 had just been shot down, adding, "Then my big conservative friend over here is gonna give 'em $215,000."
Jarboe said that when he talked with sheriff's deputies, "they told me the one thing they need is new cops on the street."
Commissioners approved a new set of fees to fund fire and rescue services and offset the charges by adjusting the property tax rate so that homeowners' costs would not increase. Then they lowered property taxes a little more, enough to cost the county about $350,000 next year.
The average $170,000 home in St. Mary's County might see a reduction of about $40 in property taxes from that cut, Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said.
As property values increase, funding for rescue squads should increase, too, Raley said.
They talked about reorganizing county departments, too, to keep permitting, inspections and other related services all in the same place -- but Raley asked to table the proposal so they could discuss it further.
The day's gush of budget and tax actions left county finance director Elaine Kramer scrambling to revise the numbers again for a final vote by the end of the day, as required by state law mandating that tax rates be set by June 1.
Kramer had just found out the county would receive more revenue than expected from the state, so the commissioners had money to add to a rainy day fund or distribute. They agreed to spend $500,000 to pay for road work rather than borrowing money in an effort to decrease the county's debt and interest payments. Overall, the budget for capital improvements -- mainly construction projects -- is nearly $29 million.
This spring, commissioners signed a joint resolution with the school system, agreeing to fund education based on the recommendations of a state commission known as the Thornton plan. That meant about $59 million for the schools. In exchange, school leaders agreed to provide an annual report card evaluating progress on standardized test scores, class sizes, economic efficiencies and other measures.
Sounding relieved after they signed the documents Tuesday evening, McKay said, "Well, we can stay in business for '05."
Raley said, "We didn't agree on everything, but that's okay."
Mattingly said he had mixed emotions about the tax cuts. "I'm concerned about the future. We don't really know what's going to happen at the state level next year."
But McKay said he was pleased. "Any time we can decrease both income and property tax and fully fund education and give the sheriff's department an 8.2 percent increase -- I think it's a great budget."