St. Mary's Approves Budget, Property Tax Revenues To Increase 20%

By Guy Leonard, County Times

LEONARDTOWN, Md. (May 29, 2008)—The St. Mary’s County Board of County Commissioners passed a $337 million operating budget with no increase in the tax rates for fiscal 2009, but an increase in the real property assessments this year means that property owners will still be paying an estimated $14.5 million more in tax revenues, according to county budget figures.

The rise in revenues translates into a 20.5 percent increase in the property tax collected, from $70.9 million total in 2008 to a projected $85.4 million for fiscal 2009.

Commissioner Lawrence D. Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) said that while the commissioners had made some efforts at reducing the overall tax burden to citizens, the property tax increase did not bode well for homeowners or businesses.

“In the long run the property taxes still bother me,” Jarboe said. “We’re facing some big challenges.

“We’ll see things get steadily worse in the private sector.”

Jarboe was the sole opponent of the budget and cast a “no” vote at Tuesday’s meeting.

One measure in the budget that passed was the reduction of the energy tax rate proffered by Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills). His proposal cut the energy tax rate in half, and thereby the projected revenue to be collected from $3 million to $1.5 million.

“It’s with great pleasure we’re putting $1.5 million back in the pockets of citizens,” Raley said.

Raley has said that instituting what is known as the constant yield property tax measure, which ensures that property tax rates go down if assessments go up to keep property owners paying the same amount of tax money would have hobbled county government in key projects and services like the expansion of the county jail and providing assistance with the new wellness center slated for construction at the Leonardtown campus of the College of Southern Maryland.

Raley estimated that the measure could have cost the county nearly $7 million in much needed revenue.

Implementing the constant yield rate on property taxes would likely mean having to raise tax rates next year Raley said.

“And that’s something I do not want,” Raley continued. “This budget reflects a true sense of fiscal conservatism.”

Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly (D-Leonardtown) said that the constant yield could have eventually returned county government to deficit spending, much like it was back when he took office nearly a decade ago.

“The constant yield is what got us into a deficit,” Mattingly said. “I don’t want us to get back into a deficit situation.”

Commissioner President Francis Jack Russell (D-St. George’s Island) said that the commissioners had debated other ways to reduce taxes, including the property tax, but decided to keep the revenue unchanged because of future fiscal challenges.

“This was the best way to keep the county fiscally sound and stave off raising taxes another time,” Russell said.

The projected revenue from county income taxes fell by about $1.5 million in the budget, to $63.7 million. Revenue sources from other local taxes and highway user fees also feel by between 2 percent and 2.8 percent, according to the latest budget figures.

The Office of the Sheriff got a $3.37 million increase in the budget for a total of $30.4 million, with an increase in detention center staff by 10 correctional officers to be hired by the first of October.

The county also started up the new Office of Human Services at a cost of $5.4 million, but most of that money is scheduled to come through grants.

The county Board of Education also received a $4.1 million increase in its county allocated funds for a total of $80.1 million.

While some considered the budget a good one, others in county government thought it was anything but that.

State’s Attorney Richard D. Fritz, in a letter written to the county commissioners dated May 15, lambasted the lawmakers for not approving pay raises for eight of his prosecutors, whom he stated had received no pay increase in the past three years.

“There can be little question as to why in the last three years I have lost four attorneys,” Fritz wrote. “To consider a total request of $26,621.23 too great of an expense to shoulder for eight attorneys who have now not received a pay raise in three budgets, but yet who stand for the protection of our citizens 24 hours a day, seven days a week is an insult.”

Both Raley and Commissioner Kenneth R. Dement (R-Tall Timbers) said that overtures to Fritz’s office were necessary to work out the issue.

“It’s in motion now as we speak,” said Russell.

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