SNOW HILL — Concerns about whether the budget stabilization fund will be enough to see Worcester County through until an economic turnaround were raised at Tuesday’s public budget hearing for FY15. Despite that uncertainty, there was overwhelming support from most of the nearly two dozen speakers to include a pay raise for county employees.

While Tuesday’s hearing was for the entire county budget, as in years past, education once again dominated the discussion. A total of 21 speakers gave comments in favor of fully funding the Board of Education’s requested budget. That budget came in at $91,203,831 and includes a salary STEP increase for all employees as well as a 1-percent Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA), the first requested in five years. A similar raise would be extended to bus contractors as well.

It is fair to note that many of the speakers were connected to the schools as teachers or support staff, with most of the remaining identifying as the parents of students. All were passionate about the need to get educators back on track with their expected compensation following a freeze for several years due to the recession.

The requested STEP increase isn’t technically a raise, teacher Teresa Denning told the County Commission, but is instead educators getting back on track for their planned salaries.

“It’s kind of a little bit of a misnomer because it’s not really a raise. Many people have been due this money, so it’s not really a raise,” she said.

By granting the STEP increase and the COLA, the county will be more likely to attract and retain quality educators, according to Dr. Jerry Wilson, superintendent of schools. The county has already lost a lot of appeal to new teachers, he continued, with starting salaries slipping from ninth in the state and first on the shore in 2009 to 16th in the state and second on the shore today. A STEP and COLA increase would go a long way toward helping current teachers who are not receiving the same compensation as some of their counterparts, according to Wilson.

“You are seeing teachers who have dedicated their careers to Worcester County not earning as much as teachers teaching the same number of years in other lower shore counties,” he told the commission.

The discrepancy is magnified by the fact that in terms of school ratings and student test scores, Worcester County Public Schools (WCPS) are consistently ranked at the top of the state. Dr. Steve Rorke, a teacher at Buckingham Elementary School, framed it as, “people have been paying for hamburger but getting filet mignon and some folks like to complain about that.” Those weren’t his words, Rorke clarified, but those of another teacher and a sentiment he said many share.

There was some pushback against any pay increase for educators, however, especially since such an approval would necessitate all county employees receiving a similar raise as is the county policy.

“Can we afford to continue to spend ourselves into a hole?” asked resident Laura Dover. “It looks like we’re running into trouble very shortly. And all Worcester County residents are experiencing an increased cost of living right now.”

The current proposed county budget shows $176,399,189 in estimated revenue with requested expenditures at $184,770,774, a shortfall of $8,371,585 that the commission will have to balance either through budget cuts or increases in revenue, most commonly done through a property tax increase. The commissioners have strongly indicated that they are considering keeping the property tax rate at the current $.77 per $100 of assessed value. Thus, the most likely way to balance the budget will come from either cuts or a greater reliance on taking money from the existing budget stabilization fund.

It should be noted that by keeping the property tax rate level the county will actually be losing nearly $1 million in revenue as county property values have decreased this year. Catching up to constant yield, or equal revenue from last year, would require a tax bump of $.0068, which several on the commission have said they want to avoid.

Already the proposed budget reflects the intended use of $6.4 million from the stabilization fund, which Dover noted is quickly running dry and is on pace to be empty after FY17.

“By FY18 we’re going to need an additional $12 million and no budget stabilization fund to bail us out,” she said.

The county is expecting to see some economic recovery over the next few years, however, with FY15 expected to be the bottom in terms of loss of property value, with anticipation for a slight rise in subsequent years. But Dover said she did not want to count on that and predicted that the commissioners will find themselves backed into a corner by FY18 and be forced to raise the property tax rate.

Resident Ellie Diegelmann also asked the commission to be frugal this year in case of further lean years ahead. She noted that county employees were given a pay raise last year, if not a COLA, and that the money doesn’t seem to be having the effect it should.

“My question is, that if Worcester County is the number one school system in the state and the country, how did we wind up as 16th in [starting] teacher salaries?” she asked.

Diegelmann further questioned a roughly $600,000 one-time technology request included in this year’s school board budget. It may be a one-time expense this year, but Diegelmann drew attention to the fact that there was another one-time technology request last year as well.

“With the technology requests, it just seems very déjà vu that the technology request is pretty much the same as last year,” she said.

Wilson spoke to both of those points Tuesday during his comments. Starting teacher salaries in Worcester remain low because WCPS have prioritized maintaining small class sizes and modern classrooms, according to Wilson. This high standard is reflected in Worcester’s consistent ranking as one of the top performing school systems in Maryland and by association the country, he argued. Worcester also receives the second lowest amount of state funding to a formula that is skewed by waterfront property values, placing a heavier burden on local county funding.

Wilson said he was proud of how WCPS are on top despite not having top level compensation.

“It is important to note that all of our employee salaries rank below the state average in all categories,” he said.

Rorke pointed out that WCPS got to the top because of the support the county gave the school system in the past and discontinuing or stalling the STEP increases that teachers were told to expect when hired would be “punishing progress.”

As intense as the debate over the public education budget became at times, the rest of the county budget received a surprising lack of comment. The only other remarks logged came from resident Grant Helvey and supporters of Coastal Hospice.

Helvey argued that Worcester has an overabundance of public recreation land and that any further funding to acquire more this year should be struck from the budget. The supporters of Coastal Hospice asked that the commission recognize the need for hospice and palliative care in the northern section of the county and provide some grant funding for a new Berlin facility in this year’s budget.

The commission has three budget work sessions scheduled prior to adopting the FY15 budget. Those work sessions are for Tuesday, May 13, Wednesday, May 21 and Tuesday, May 27, all at 9 a.m. A final budget is set for adoption on Tuesday, June 3.