Caroline raises income tax for school, sheriff’s office projects
Increase will help fund new school, new sheriff’s office
DENTON — The Caroline County commissioners voted to raise the income tax rate from 2.73 to 3.2 percent, effective Jan. 1, to pay for two large capital projects.
The unanimous decision came at the end of the second of two meetings held Tuesday, Oct. 31 — the commissioners held their regularly-scheduled meeting in the morning, and a second meeting that night, added specifically to give citizens another opportunity to comment on the proposed tax rate increase.
Commissioners had to vote Oct. 31, as tax rates for the coming year must be set by Nov. 1.
The additional revenue generated by the tax rate increase will be used to pay the county’s share of construction costs for a new Greensboro Elementary School — expected to be about $18 million of the $46 million total — and for a new $3.5 million building for the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office, to be built on land owned by the county.
Both projects, which will be paid for with 20-year bonds, should be completed in the next four years, Caroline County Administrator Ken Decker said Oct. 31; the tax rate increase had to be passed in time for the coming year because it takes about 18 months for the county to star t to see the increased revenue.
Commission President Dan Franklin said the mean annual income in Caroline County is about $56,000. The rate increase would cost someone making that amount an additional $5 a week, he said.
Commissioners said they regretted having to pass on a tax increase to residents, but it was the best way to generate the revenue for the muchneeded projects.
“This is a tough decision, but the tax increase is the only way I see to do it,” said Commissioner Wilbur Levengood.
“The central question is not about the income tax,” Vice President Larry Porter said. “The question is, do we believe building a new school in Greensboro and a functional building for the sheriff’s office is the right thing to do?”
Porter said they chose not to raise the property tax instead because it is already high, and everyone who lives in the county, including renters, will contribute to the cost through income tax.
He also said money collected from excise taxes for newly created building lots — currently about $311,700 — is earmarked to help pay for the projects. The county does not collect impact fees, he said.
Those who spoke against the proposed increase were concerned about taxpayers’ ability to absorb a large jump at once, and what they considered a lack of long-term financial planning that led to it.
During the morning meeting, Charles Cawley, of Denton, said he attended on behalf of younger family members to protest the onetime increase.
“It’s a lot to take in one fell swoop,” Cawley said, suggesting raising it incrementally over three years. “It’s too much of a burden for a young family with children.”
Decker said the county chose to raise it to 3.2 percent because that maximizes the amount of funding the state will contribute to school constructions costs, as it uses a formula that takes into account the local income tax rate.
“It would be financially counterproductive if we did smaller increases,” Decker said. “The county would lose money if we did a partial increase.”
Cawley, a former Caroline County administrator who served until 2008, said the overcrowding issues at Greensboro Elementary School have been a mounting problem for at least the last eight to 10 years.
“My concern is there was no long-term planning,” Cawley said.
Decker said the recession that began in 2008 caused both a loss of funds — in decreased property tax revenue and severely decreased gas tax money the state used to return to the counties for road maintenance — and an increase in costs, passed down by the state so it could balance its own budget.
Notable among those passed costs were teacher pensions, Franklin said; the state used to fully fund those pensions, but in 2013, began the process of transferring half of that cost to local jurisdictions.
“Just that one action costs us annually what the debt service on both of these projects (the school and the sheriff’s office) will,” Franklin said.
During the evening meeting, Eric Knapp, of Denton, questioned why money was not being set aside since Greensboro Elementary School was built in 1971 for an eventual replacement.
Milton Nagel, assistant superintendent for administrative services for Caroline County Public Schools, said many of the schools in the county were built around the same time, in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the state funded 100 percent of construction costs.
Since schools have to reach 40 years old to qualify for what is now the maximum state contribution — 80 percent — many of the system’s schools were in need of renovation in a short period. In the past several years, both Colonel Richardson middle and high schools and Preston Elementary School have undergone extensive renovations.
Greensboro Elementary School is next on the list, Nagel said. Currently, 819 students attend a school designed to hold 670. Nine portable classrooms behind the school help relieve the overcrowding.
Nagel said a year-long study determined the cheapest solution is to build a new school on the same campus, rather than try to renovate and add on to the existing building or build an additional school farther north.
“We do look at it very systematically,” Nagel said. “We have a capital improvement plan, required by the state, and we are leveraging the most state money possible.”
Most of the people who spoke at both meetings Oct. 31 were in favor of the increase, if it was the best way to pay for both projects.
Jeannette DeLude, Greensboro town manager, said the school needed to be replaced with one large enough to hold all the students under one secure roof.
“The students (in the portable classrooms) have to go back and forth to the school to use the bathroom, unsuper vised,” DeLude said.
Further, if there were an emergency on school grounds, the students would either have to be moved into the school or stay in the portable classrooms, which could easily be broken into, DeLude said.
“They would be vulnerable,” she said.
Robert Chapel, of Ridgely, said Caroline County Sheriff Randy Bounds gave him a tour of the sheriff’s office, which occupies eight rooms in the basement of the Caroline Detention Center in Denton.
“I was dismayed to see it was so dinky and small,” Chapel said. “It looked like a dodgy situation. Do what you can to keep the cost down, but I would support (a new sheriff’s office) as soon as possible.”
Bounds said the office space is not only cramped — it was last renovated in 1993, when the office had only 10 employees and mostly provided courthouse security — but it no longer meets the needs of the office, which has grown to 40 employees and provides every law enforcement service from criminal investigations to school resource officers.
The space is also in need of repair, Bounds said, describing raw sewage leaks from the jail above it.
“This is a can that has been kicked as far down the road as possible,” Bounds said.
The Caroline County commissioners voted to raise the income tax rate from 2.73 to 3.2 percent. This chart shows the monthly and annual increases associated with the change, according to the county’s calculations.