More “Facts on county budget, please”

On August 4th, 2013, Bob White had a letter to the editor published in the Frederick News Post, entitled: “Facts on county budget, please

It’s worth noting a few things about Bob White. Bob served 17 years on the Frederick County Planning Commission, including two terms as Chair. And he served three years on the Frederick County Board of Appeals. During those years, he also served on a few other county boards and commissions, including the Citizens Zoning Review Committee and on those involved in developing or amending the County’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. He was a co-founder of Citizens for Quality of Life and Citizens for Responsible Growth. In 2010 he ran in the Republican primary for County Commissioner. He’s been an engaged county resident for 26 years. Bob also serves on the Board of Directors of Envision Frederick County. All of which is to say that Bob has a great deal of experience with Frederick County government, spread out of a number of very different boards of county commissioners.

Bob White’s letter to the editor was an excellent contribution to the ongoing effort to get the facts — the truth — out about the Frederick County budgets during the term of the current board. That hasn’t been easy, for a number of reasons, including the fact that the budget process is lengthy, the budget is large and complex, and it’s difficult to write about it well in short articles, or to understand it well if that is all you read about it.

But, perhaps more to the point, and trying — a bit — to put it diplomatically, the public has been receiving a highly manipulated, very selective and grossly distorted perspective about the last three county budgets.

As excellent as it was, Bob White’s letter to the editor was constrained by the length generally allowed for a letter in the Frederick News Post. Below is the full text of his letter, followed by related details and additional information.

Facts on county budget, please

Frederick News Post
Letter to the Editor
Sunday, August 4, 2013

by Bob White

Enough misdirection is enough! Citizens deserve facts about the county budget, not hazy self-serving propaganda.

Commissioners President Blaine Young recently claimed as a key “accomplishment” a reduction in the county workforce of 25 percent. Since the Young board took office in December 2010, the county workforce actually has been reduced by about a net 10 percent — with some of these positions filled by privatized “contract employees.” (There were 2,447 county positions in December 2010, now reduced to 2,190 positions for the budget beginning on July 1.) The Young board has to take credit for the reductions made in the number of employee positions during the last two years of the Gardner board and then has to add a few percentage points more to make this claim.

Have these reductions in the number of county employees resulted in a lower budget or lowered costs to the taxpayer?

For the current Young board he answer is no. Cuts in county employees, elimination of the county sponsorship of Head Start, cuts in funding to human service nonprofits, and “privatization” have not resulted in less overall county spending, a lower county budget or a tax cut for property owners. Cuts have been most deeply felt most by the less fortunate in our community … while overall spending actually has increased.

For the previous Gardner board, the answer is “yes.” A hiring freeze and the decision to not fill vacant positions, plus some other spending reductions, resulted in a decrease in the county’s overall budget of $38 million during the last two years of the Gardner board. County spending declined with smaller budgets adopted two years in a row. The county lived within its means and every agency shared in the reductions.

Has overall spending decreased?

The answer is no. During the first three years of the Young board, the county budget increased from $438 million to $516 million. The Young board has increased spending every year and is spending more money than any prior board. This is an increase paid for by county taxpayers. During the four-year term of the previous Gardner board, the county general fund budget remained almost flat, only growing from $436 million to $438 million.

The Young board has claimed an improvement to the county bond rating.

In actual fact, the county bond rating has not changed during the term of the Young board. The county bond rating was upgraded during the term of the Gardner board, with the first AAA bond rating awarded by the Fitch rating agency. The “outlook” has improved over the past five years primarily due to the improvement in the national economy. The Young board wants you to believe that the change in the economic outlook is an upgrade in the bond rating. In reality, the bond rating has not changed.

Are taxpayers paying less?

No. In fact, many county taxpayers have seen their property taxes go up under the Young board. When the Young board abolished the county fire tax, they increased the county property tax by an equal or greater amount, with some taxpayers paying significantly more than they were paying before. Taxpayers in Sabillasville and Mount Airy saw their combined property tax rate increase by 12.8 cents on property tax bills received on July 1, for an approximate 15 percent tax increase. An average taxpayer in these areas will see a tax increase between $400 to $500 dollars. Taxpayers in Thurmont, Lewistown, Walkersville and Brunswick saw their combined property tax increase by 4.8 cents on property tax bills mailed on July 1, for an approximate 6 percent increase. An average taxpayer in those areas will see a tax increase between $150 to $200 dollars. The Young board has also raised water and sewer rates for all county taxpayers on public water and sewer.

Where is all the money going?

The Young board has cut over 200 fees and taxes — primarily to benefit of the development and building industry. Most county taxpayers will not experience a benefit from these fee reductions. In many instances, there are still county costs to cover development review and inspection of projects. These costs have been shifted to the backs of county taxpayers. This means the taxpayer is now paying for the cost of permits and inspection for development projects that previously have been covered by user fees.

The public deserves facts, not fiction about the budget and taxes. Look at your recently mailed property tax bill. Look at the annual county budget summaries. Spending and your tax bills have gone up! I guess this is the Young board just doing what it promised!

To be fair, let me start out by clarifying something Bob wrote. He said, “During the first three years of the Young board, the county budget increased from $438 million to $516 million.” That is true, but as Commissioner Young has been quick to point out, the $516 million budget for fiscal year 2014 (which started on July 1, 2013) does include and reflects the recent decision to shift the county Fire Tax to the general fund.

The basic explanation of that shift is that rather than continuing to have a separate and dedicated property tax for fire and rescue services, the county commissioners decided to fold both the additional tax revenues and the operating costs into the general fund. Among other things, that had the effect of increasing the county operating budget commensurately.

NOTE, however, that the bar for fiscal year 2014 in the graphic below shows the overall operating budget with the shift of the fire tax revenues and fire service expenses into the general fund and operating budget…AND (marked by the white line) the approximate budget without that change.

Click on the graphic to open a larger, readable version.

graphic_FY2007-2014_budgets_1080w

Consider that…

1) Even with a direct, apples-to-apples comparison (that does not include the fire service), the Fiscal Year 2014 budget would be the third consecutive year with a larger county budget, and would still be the largest budget in the history of Frederick County. And…

2) In a recent mass mailing sent to more than 40,000 registered Republicans in Frederick County, Commissioner Young highlighted that he and the board “Abolished the Fire Tax.” While that may be factually true, it is, nevertheless, an outright deceit to list that as an accomplishment without also including the fact that everyone’s property taxes were increased by the same amount…or more (for the roughly 20% of county households that were previously in the “Suburban” fire tax district).

noticeofrealpropertytaxincrease2013_500w

In other words, “abolishing the fire tax” in the manner it was done meant that no county households received a tax decrease, and many received a significant tax increase.

In the same mass mailing, Commissioner Young trumpeted that the board had reduced the Excise Tax rate “to ZERO” (the bold, all-CAPS was his). He did so without any additional details, and knowing full well that very few people that read the mailing have any idea who paid the Excise Tax or how the revenue was used.

To wit, the excise tax in Frederick County was a one-time tax, levied on developers, that was entirely dedicated to address some of the road and traffic issues associated with the new development. Reducing the excise tax “to ZERO” did not alleviate the road and traffic problems caused by any specific development.

In fact, because the money was targeted at road projects that need to be done, eliminating the building excise tax simply pulled $1.5 to $2.0 million out of the annual budget that then has to be backfilled by general taxpayer dollars. So, eliminating that particular tax may sound like a tax cut to the average homeowner who doesn’t have all the information, but in fact, it was a direct transfer of a cost borne by developers of certain projects to all the taxpaying property owners in the county.

Commissioner Young also and frequently touts the elimination or reduction of various other unnamed “taxes and fees.”

A notable example was the elimination of many developer review and permitting fees. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much this has been worth (due to lack of transparency) but a good, conservative estimate is that $3 to $5 million in user fees — fees that were covering the direct costs of necessary permits and inspection for development projects — were simply transferred to the general taxpayers of the county.

A cut? Technically, yes. But one that only benefits developers, at the expense of everyone else.

One could easily fill page after page with examples like this, where the real story is very different, and often completely contrary, to the tales being spun by Commissioner Blaine Young.

Perhaps a follow up piece, or two, would be worthwhile. But, in the meantime, here are a few more good examples of easily demonstrable facts that are contrary to what Commissioner Young has been saying and writing:

The previous board of county commissioners — the Gardner board — never spent more money than it had.

The Gardner board did not operate with a structural deficit.

The Gardner board took a more aggressive approach to addressing the problem of funding projected long term “Other Post Employment Benefits” (OPEB) than any other county or municipality in the state. The county employee pension fund was 82% funded by the Gardner Board during their term (per a report in January 2011), and the “Young board” merely implemented the last year of the “ramp up” that was already in place.

Commissioners Young and Shreve have said, many times, that the Gardner Board had a budget that was based on, and depended upon, the construction of 1,500 new homes a year in the county (and the impact fees associated with them)? 
That is a complete and utter falsehood.
 No part of any of the budgets approved by the previous board assumed or depended on the number of new homes permitted/constructed. In fact, the previous board specifically believed it was foolish and wrong to have any part of the budget set up that way.

The clarifications and corrections above — just a few of many — are not the sort of thing one does or should expect to have to make. This is not about a board president making a few simple errors in an attempt to convey something complicated in a basic and readily comprehensible manner. No. Rather they are, at best, illustrative of — and the result of — a purposeful and systematic effort to mislead the voters of Frederick County. It’s a cynical and reprehensible sort of slight-of-hand that directs attention away from the real agenda, while serving development interests and advancing political goals…at the expense of the citizens and taxpayers of the county, and the wellbeing of our community.