B y Derek Liebig
The Washington County Board of Supervisors narrowly passed its 2014 last week, but not before removing their own pay-raise.
Supervisors approved the $100.9 million spending plan by a slim 2,195 to 2,065 margin. Nine supervisors voted in favor of the budget while eight were in opposition.
The budget will raise the tax levy by 2.6 percent.
Supervisors debate raise
The most hotly contested item was a 2 percent raise for supervisors that was included in the county’s preliminary budget.
Jackson Supervisor Alan Brown, who voted against the county’s fiscal plan, put forth an amendment to eliminate the increase. He argued the county needed to do more to cut spending and that foregoing the pay raise was a step in that direction.
“It doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s symbolic of what we need to do on a larger scale,” Brown said.
Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien, who was the only local supervisor to support Brown’s proposal and vote against the budget, said he empathized with the financial difficulties faced by many residents and couldn’t support the increase.
“We can set an example by refusing the 2 percent and show we have sympathy to their plight,” he said, adding that many of constituents have not had a raise of cost of living adjustment in several years.
But not all shared that sentiment.
Hebron Supervisor and county Budget Officer Brian Campbell argued that the increase doesn’t fully compensate for a 6 percent salary reduction supervisors accepted several years ago.
“I think it’s time for supervisors to consider this a job, not a hobby,” Dresden Supervisor Robert Banks said.
The debate was largely symbolic. Although supervisors ultimately voted to eliminate the pay increase, it had very little affect on the overall budget and wasn’t enough to decrease the tax levy.
The total salary of all members of the board is $321,900. Had the 2 percent raise been approved, that amount would have increased by $6,800; a miniscule amount considering overall expenses topped $100 million.
“We’re stepping over a dollar to pick up pennies,” Salem Supervisor Seth Pitts said.
The budget did include a 2 percent across-the-board salary increase for all county employees and a number of select positions received salary increases in excess of two percent, which even during the holiday season was a little too generous for some.
“We handed out raises to everyone like Santa Claus passing out candy canes,” Pitts said.
Plan includes “paving” money
Brown unsuccessfully lobbied for a more impactful amendment, trying to convince his fellow board members to slash $300,000 from the county’s road paving fund.
Over the past several years, the county has routinely taken funds allocated for paving to pay for other expenses. Because of that, the county has fallen behind on the paving of roads. Under ideal circumstances, at least 18 miles of road would be paved every year. However, that total has dropped to as low as five miles.
Whitehall Supervisor George Armstrong, who characterized the budget as “excellent,” said the cost of paving roads was only going to increase in future years and it would become more difficult to pay for. The budget, as approved by supervisors on Friday, sets aside enough money to pave 18 miles of road.
“We’re in a hole we have to climb out of, but we’re climbing out too fast,” Kingsbury Supervisor Jim Lindsay said.
Overall, spending is project to decrease 12 percent next year, but revenues are expected to fall by 19 percent. Both are down primarily to the privatization of Pleasant Valley Infirmary and most the county’s public health department. Campbell said he is confident the sale of those entities will be finalized by the end of the year.
Tax increase too steep for some
Although spending is at its lowest point since 2006, it will not translate into lower taxes.
The tax levy will increase from $29.4 million in 2013 to $30.1 million in 2014, an increase of 2.6 percent.
That figure was too much for some.
O’Brien said he would have preferred the increase in the tax levy come in at 1.5 to 2 percent. Although he was against decreasing the paving budget, he thought there was room in other areas of the Department of Public Works that could have been trimmed.
Tim Havens, owner of Falls Farm and Garden and a Kingsbury resident, was critical of the county giving out raises to its employees and said residents expected taxes to decrease and not increase in light of the county divesting itself of Pleasant Valley Infirmary, Public Health and the transfer stations.
“People expected a tax levy reduction, not an increase,” he said.
Russ LaCroix of Easton said the county is still sliding downhill as evidenced by the number of empty storefronts in local communities.
“How do you keep people here? It’s not with higher taxes,” he said. “I’m sure there’s enough fat in this budget to bring it to zero.
Pitts said the budget does nothing to lift the tax burden of the county’s working-class poor.
“What we did today was an abomination.”