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County Council, May 13

More argument, but no change in proposed tax increase
GAB recommendations for changes in Greenbelt Plan approved
Warwick Jones

We missed the special meeting of the Finance Committee last week when discussion began over the Fiscal 2011 budget. Suffice to say, times are tough and revenues are weak. The Committee approved staff’s recommendation which included a 0.8 millage increase and a reduction of 10% in the allocation of the Local Option Sales Tax to offset property tax bills. Obviously these moves will increase the tax burden for County property owners.

Last night’s Finance Committee meeting was largely taken up with a continuation of the debate as to whether an increase in property taxes could be avoided, and a presentation by staff on the budgets for Enterprise Funds, Council Agencies and other entities.

Council members Schweers and McKeown are opposed to any increase in the property tax burden at this time. They argue that citizens are already burdened by severe economic times. Both sought ways to avoid the effective tax increase following on the proposal by staff. Staff were also requested to provide a list of Fund balances and the Council members, and Council member Condon, looked to ways to use what seemed excessive amounts relative to present expenditures.

Staff told the Committee that rating agencies looked to municipalities to maintain a fund balance equal to 1.5 to 2 months of spending. As members noted, most balances of County funds were at the 2 month level or well above. So why not use up the surplus above the 1.5 month level to balance the 2010 budget?

No, and not possible, the Committee was told. Firstly, the rating agencies really looked at 2 months as most appropriate, and maintaining the County‘s AAA bond rating was important. With a $200 million bond issue coming up, the County needed to ensure that it could obtain a low interest rate. Secondly, the high balances in some Funds reflected the proscribed use of the monies. By law, they could not be withdrawn and directed to other purposes. An example was the federally mandated Stormwater Fund. The balance was presently high but spending was likely to increase in future.

If the Committee members hoped to reverse the proposed tax increase measures, it was forlorn. The majority of members showed no inclination and indeed Chairman Pryor and Council member Darby argued that Staff had been tasked to do their best and had done so. So let’s move on. Council member Rawl, who voted for the staff recommendation last week took mild issue with the Chair and noted that as a Council member he had a right to take issue.

The Finance Committee also received the recommendations of Greenbelt Advisory Board as to changes in the Greenbelt Plan. As both Council member Schweers and McKeown noted, the proposed changes were very modest, and this was pleasing. We noted the proposed changes in our Commentary - Greenbelt Advisory Board April 28, 2010.

Council member Rawl was the only member of Council that was unhappy and voted against the amendments. He was seeking changes that would have given greater weighting to projects that allowed public access and viewing. He also questioned the broadness in defining “greenbelt”.

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