Hurlock Council holds first budget work session

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Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
On March 30 Hurlock began work on its FY2017 draft budget. From left, Council members Russell Murphy, Jerry Rhue, Bonnie Franz, Mayor Joyce Spratt, council members Earl Murphy, the Rev. Charles Cephas, and Town Administrator John Avery.

HURLOCK — A budget work session can be pretty boring. For most counties and municipalities such sessions are usually held with the full council and a roomful of empty chairs. The March 30 Hurlock budget session was true to form. Five council members, Mayor Joyce Spratt, Administrator John Avery, two citizens in the audience, and two reporters, heard Mr. Avery’s first draft numbers for the town’s FY2017 budget. The meeting lasted 43 minutes.

Public work sessions are essentially “shirt-sleeves” meetings where the council discusses issues but cannot take official votes. Instead, “consensus” polls determine the direction a council is heading and serve as reasonable guides for the public. With numerous council members and staff at the session plus the tentative nature of many of the subjects, many councils prohibit or discourage citizen participation in work sessions except as “resource persons.”

Subsequently, a council holds one or more public hearings on the final draft to hear public opinion and answer questions so residents learn why revenue is needed and what it will be spent on. And, it gives policy makers clear indications of public sentiment before a final vote.

Mayor Spratt opened the March 30 meeting by saying the council would not take public input but citizens were invited to “listen to what the council has to say” about the first draft budget.

Mr. Avery based the draft on the budget report through December 2015 which is the halfway point of FY 2016. He said some revenues appear higher because more revenue is collected at the beginning of the year than towards end of the year. Most of the expenditures are close to projections. He explained that revenue over expenditures as of December 2015 was $700,000 and most of the line items are below 50% in expenditures.

He noted one significant revenue increase: Industrial sewer revenue was budgeted at $1.25 million and, he noted, “We probably are looking at close to $1.5 million.”

Anticipated revenue for real property taxes, corporate certification, personal property, penalties and interest, and local income is projected at $1,603,355 and close to last year. Mr. Avery explained that other revenues are projected to stay the same except for the industrial sewer charges that “look like they should go up by $250,000. Amick is discharging more and their fees are based on their discharge. That would put the projected total revenue at $4,591,425.”

The administrator anticipates minor changes in General Government Expenditures. “The only expenditures of any substance added into the budget this year would be another $70,000 for street and road repairs. We had $80,000 in the budget last year because of the road work and we would anticipate adding $70,000 making it $150,000 for road repairs.

Debt principal decreased a bit from last year because of a loan payoff but is projected to increase to $50,000 with a new police station loan.

Employee raises are under consideration as potential expenditures. Mr. Avery said the payroll is about $1 million. A 1 percent raise would be $10,000 plus ½ percent, $5,000, for workman’s comp and health insurance; at 2% plus benefits the total would be $30,000; at 3 percent it would be $45,000; and at 4 percent expenditures would increase by $60,000.

Administrator Avery said anticipated expenditures would be $4,480,801 and anticipated revenue would be $4,900,425. Contingency funds are budgeted at $110,624. He explained that the current water main work is funded by a USDA grant but the Poplar St. repairs are town-funded. He hopes to do more infrastructure replacement and repair “that would be funded only by the town.”

Mayor Spratt added, “These figures are not written in stone but we’re not projecting higher revenues than we are pretty sure we’re going to get.” There is no projected increase in water or sewer revenue and property taxes, adjusting for constant yield rate, will stay the same.
Councilman Earl Murphy asked if funds are set aside for a new police car. Mr. Avery said there is $30,000 for a new vehicle in the current capital outlay budget that was not set aside for a police car, just for a vehicle as a precaution. There is another $30,000 in the projected budget under police capital outlay. “We’re contacting some dealers to put feelers out on demos and that’s the way we bought the last three that are police equipped ready vehicles.”

Answering Councilman Russell Murphy’s question about funding additional infrastructure work Mr. Avery explained the council would do a “budget amendment” to use contingency funds. For example, he noted that repairing Maryland Ave. which is “rough to start with and the storm sewer is old,” could be $200,000. Some costs could be grant-funded; some town-funded. He noted most of the town’s roads are in “top notch shape especially with Main and Poplar being redone.”

Councilman Charles Cephas asked about costs for retirees’ insurance and pensions. Mr. Avery responded they are reviewing insurance options. Pensions are paid by the state system and no new additions are anticipated. Asked if a storm water system upgrade is planned, Mr. Avery said a study is in process and the town applied for grant of $1.5 million for the Jackson Street pump station upgrade.

The volunteer fire department receives: $60,000 for the department from town funds; an ambulance appropriation of $5,000; and an annual 508 Fund contribution from the Maryland State Fireman’s Association of $16,000. Mayor Spratt said if the council wants to increase those figures this is the time to do it.

At the end of the meeting resident Frank Bittner asked if citizens should go to their council member with questions prior to the next meeting. Mayor Spratt said yes, or her or Mr. Avery. The Rev. Cephas said, “Although this is a draft it shouldn’t be released to the public until it is corrected to the final draft,” to which Mayor Spratt replied, “No. It’s not a big secret but that’s just the fact of how it is.”

In an interview with the Banner, Dorchester County Manager Jeremy Goldman was asked if the county offers written copies of the draft budget. He explained that the draft for his $65 million budget has numerous pages and preparing copies would be costly and very time consuming. During work sessions the draft pages are projected on a screen, where they are discussed and changed as necessary. The public is welcome to watch the process although Mr. Goldman noted that few citizens attend. The final draft is available for public viewing prior to the public hearing where citizens can sign up and speak briefly to any point in the budget.

The drafts are considered “works in progress” and while they are available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the process is cumbersome. The drafts change frequently; and, it can take up to 30 days to process a FOIA request. Once the budget is approved it is published on the county website within hours. Some government entities offer a form on the website to complete for citizens who wish to comment on a budget.

The schedule for adoption of the Hurlock FY2017 budget is: April 11 – Open meeting immediately followed by a second budget work session.  As of The Banner publication deadline, no answer was received to the question of when a final draft is due for the public to review; or, when the public hearing for comments is scheduled. It was noted at the March 30 meeting that at the open meeting on April 25 the budget ordinance will be introduced; on May 9 the council will vote on the budget and 20 days later the budget will be adopted.
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Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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