Public safety, education prioritized at public hearing
Residents, county officials sound off on budget for first time
Public safety and education are normally the top priorities when budgets are created for local jurisdictions, but according to some residents and officials there may not be enough of a dedication to either.
During a public hearing on the county’s fiscal 2017 budget Tuesday evening, Charles County Sheriff Troy Berry (D) said if public safety does not get more of a funding increase, the sheriff’s office may have to consider recalling school resource officers from schools around the county.
Berry said there are 18 currently committed to
the school system. He said he is committed to having those officers in the school system, but if there is no additional staffing, they may have to reallocate resources.
“I do not want to pull the officers out of school, but if I do not get any funding, I may not have a choice,” Berry said.
County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said he respects the position Berry is in. He hopes the county commissioners can get data on the situation, he said, and create a plan to add additional officers to the Charles County Sheriff’s office.
There will not be 23 offi- cers sworn in during one given fiscal year, Robinson said, but there can be a plan put in place.
“I’m absolutely open to the discussion. It needs to be data driven and I know Sheriff Berry is open to share certain reports he is in possession of,” Robinson said. “If we come up with a multi-year plan, we could accomplish that.”
Berry said he and the officers’ job of keeping the county safe is not “an easy” one, but it is sometimes “thankless.”
In the county’s proposed budget, 67.5 percent of the $375,292,600 general fund appropriations are going to the public school system and the sheriff’s office. The school board will get 45.4 percent and the sheriff will get 22.1 percent.
Both entities are getting net increases in funding over last year, but both are also asking for more of an increase than what the county is proposing.
The sheriff’s office is requesting an $8.3 million increase from its $79 million general fund allocation last year. Berry said he would like to have more structure in place for how the office grows over the next few years and would like to add 23 more officers to his staff.
“We must make a commitment and we must do it now,” Berry said.
John Elliot, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 24, said law enforcement is being attacked around the country and it makes for an uncomfortable situation for police everywhere.
Officers do not join law enforcement to become rich or famous, Elliot said, but to serve the people in their communities. Charles County is “falling behind” and has been able to do “more with less” but that has to change, he said.
“We can do so much more,” Elliot said.
Maureen Woodruff, a member of the board of directors for the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, said she and the chamber fear the county’s budget does not reflect the priorities the county should have.
“Keep taxes in check, fully fund education, fund public safety and relieve traffic congestion by building new roads,” Woodruff said.
In 2010, the county’s budget dedicated 74 percent of its resources to public safety, including services beyond the sheriff’s office, and education. In this year’s proposed budget, which is subject to change, the county is dedicating 71.2 percent of it’s general operating funds to those departments.
This is a huge difference, Woodruff said, and relative to other areas puts Charles County behind in spending. If the county wants to attract businesses and development, she said, that has to improve.
“Schools and public safety are critical elements for employers and fostering economic development,” Woodruff said.
On Sept. 30, 2011, Charles County Public Schools had a student head count of 26,850. Since then, the population has decreased slightly to 26,307.
Virginia McGraw, chairwoman of the Charles County Board of Education, said despite student population totals remaining relatively flat, public education needs more funding to increase special programs for students with special needs.
“We are welcoming a growing number of students who need special programs to removing learning roadblocks,” McGraw said.
The school system had a 16.5 percent increase in limited English proficiency students, McGraw said. More students are applying for free and reduced meals, she said, and the special needs student population has increase to 6.9 percent.
“These changes have caused costs to continue to rise,” McGraw said. “We have a lot of work to do to close the achievement gap between students.”
The board would like to expand programs like an English language learning program for students at Maurice J. McDonough High School, McGraw said. And they would also like to have more projects for college and career readiness, she said.
Debra Hann, a teacher in the Charles County Public Schools system, said she has to constantly recycle items or spend her own money to find items of interest for her students to make her class interactive.
She has been teaching for 34 years, Hann said, which is “having fun” for her. But she always has to think of ways to improve her school and classroom.
Hann said she’d like to be “laid out on a beach” somewhere and tanning, but for now, she has to settle with her backyard. That can change, she said, if the county commissioners increase funding to the school system.
“My children are worth it,” Hann said. “I have third graders at my school that have a better phone than I have. I do spend a lot of money on my class ... I’m very lucky to be a teacher in Charles County. So please go and fund the teachers.”