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Town budget and tax rate
to remain stable in 2014

Scott Zuke

(5/22) Emmitsburg's commissioners voted to maintain the current property tax rate through 2014 at their May 20 town meeting, and indicated few concerns over Mayor Don Briggs' $1.6 million budget proposal, which is balanced at nearly the same amount as last year's.

Under the Board's plan, property owners will continue to pay 36 cents per $100 of assessed property value, despite a decline in the tax base in recent years.

"By holding this rate we're actually going to take in $505 less this year than we did last year," said Town Manager Dave Haller, "and over the last four years, due to assessment changes, we're taking in about 25% less in property tax money than we did four years ago. But we think this is adequate to run our budget."

The town has been able to maintain services without increasing taxes largely because of a Frederick County tax equity policy enacted by the Board of County Commissioners in March of last year. The change in policy increased the amount of tax dollars reimbursed to municipalities that provide their own public services rather than receiving them from the county and, for Emmitsburg, was enough to offset the simultaneous decline in property tax revenue.

Otherwise, little has changed from last year's budget, and the Board is poised to move forward with the proposal at the June 3 meeting. Voting was delayed to give Commissioner Patrick Joy, who was unable to attend the meeting, a chance to provide feedback.

One item that will be brought back for further discussion is the annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for town staff. Commissioner Chris Staiger voiced concern that the proposed 2% COLA, which amounts to $12,800, didn't appear to be tied to any nationally recognized figure and thus risked ballooning arbitrarily if continued into the future. Staiger made a motion to adopt a 1.7% COLA based on a figure from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The other commissioners agreed that the number should be tied to some annually published figure, but the motion failed in a tie vote after Town Clerk Donna Despres explained that the 2% figure was calculated from the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

"When my motion to adopt the SSA COLA rate deadlocked, I felt it was better to let the issue ride until our next meeting when we hope to have all five commissioners and can hopefully reach a consensus," Staiger said after the meeting. "At that time we can discuss the merits of the current staff process and decide if a change is in order."

Staiger also requested that staff itemize expenses for the town square redesign in the capital improvement fund rather than lumping them together under a single entry in order to keep better track of spending in what could be a $500,000 project.

"We're in for $50,000 of town funds plus $50,000 of grants already, and I don't want this to get out of hand, and I think we need to proceed at a measured pace and be very deliberative about what we're doing," Staiger said.

The redesign has been awaiting approval from the State Highway Administration, but is anticipated to move forward to detailed drawings in the coming months.

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