Chestertown Councilman David Foster and Mayor Chris Cerino gave the Kent County Commissioners a scolding Tuesday evening, June 4, at the county’s public hearing on the Fiscal Year 2020 budget.
The two elected officials took the commissioners to task for the county’s failure, for the fifth year running, to provide a tax differential or rebate to the town. The idea is to compensate town residents and the municipal government for services provided by the town for which they are billed in the county tax rate. In the case of Chestertown, those services include police protection, road repairs and maintenance, and planning and zoning. While the county taxes town residents the full amount that all county residents pay, it does not, on the whole, provide those services within town limits.
Describing the budget negotiations as “a very difficult assignment,” Commission President Tom Mason said the county had set aside “a placeholder” for a tax rebate to towns but decided after examining the budget as a whole to give it to the schools instead. “We can only do so much with what we have,” he said. He said the commission decided not to increase the property tax rate because it would present a hardship to many property owners, who are already facing one of the higher rates on the Shore.
Mason said the county had budgeted for an increase in the county’s “piggy-back” addition to the state income tax rate to the state-allowed maximum of 3.2%. He said the increase would provide about $1.6 million over three years, which would give the towns, “especially Chestertown,” a “substantial” increase in their income, making it unnecessary to set aside a tax rebate for them.
Foster, who has made the tax differential a signature issue, was the first of several public officials to address the commissioners. He said, “Like most folks, I hate to see my taxes go up, but I recognize that sometimes it’s necessary to provide critical services. […] But somehow, those people who provide services somehow forget that many of us live in Chestertown. The sheriff rarely comes to town. The county street crew, paid to shovel our streets, somehow rarely get here.” He asked the commissioners to imagine how a resident of one of the town’s wards would feel if the town decided not to provide equal services to that ward. “Now, if Delmarva [Power] would have charged me the same rate as everyone else but provided me with half the services, I’d call that fraud. Wouldn’t you? What should we call it when local government charges us full range but provides half of the services, solely because of our location?”
And if the towns are, on their own, providing the services the county doesn’t, Foster asked, “Why should you not provide a tax differential to the citizens who do not get county services, like virtually every other county in our state? I’m still trying to find out what is so unique about Kent County that you can’t strive to meet your obligations.” Foster went on to say, “I know that you’re working hard for economic development. So I just cannot understand why you penalize precisely the areas that are most suited and most likely to attract small businesses. […] I know that you’re working hard. And I hope that you will recognize that we’re not asking for charity. I’m simply asking for the services we’re paying for.”
Cerino said, “It is extremely disappointing that for the fifth straight year I’ve come and asked and put this issue every way I possibly can to make it crystal clear why the town of Chestertown in particular, but also the town of Rock Hall, deserve a tax differential or a tax rebate.” After pointing out that the two towns, which have a population of about 6,500 between them – nearly a third of the county – pay the full county tax rate, Cerino noted that the two towns have their own police departments, their own road crews, and their own planning and zoning. “Which not only takes millions of dollars off of your plate every single year, we’re also essentially paying you for services you know you don’t provide within the town. […] We are paying for phantom services. Every other county in the state that has incorporated towns has figured this out by either lowering the county tax rate within the town or by cutting a check to the towns, a tax rebate or a grant in aid – call it whatever you want.”
Cerino told the commissioners that up until 2014, the incorporated towns received a grant in aid, as much as $110,000 for Chestertown. “I can tell you that has hurt our budget for Chestertown,” he said. “That’s not just a problem for Chestertown; that is a county-wide problem. Because this is where a fourth of the people live. This is where most of the businesses are. This where all the hotel rooms are. We have twenty-five miles of roads that we need to maintain. When the county gets in a little bit of trouble in a recession, and one of the first cuts is cut to the towns, that is a cut to your own constituency.”
Cerino went on to list a number of towns all over the Shore with the amount of tax differential they receive, ranging from 13 cents per $100 assessed value in Easton to 6 or 7 cents in some smaller towns. He also listed rebates received by towns in other Shore counties, ranging from $3.3 million in Ocean City to $13,000 in Cecilton. He then said, “I requested a 5-cent differential. That would have been the lowest figure on this list. And you guys came up with a goose egg again.” He observed that the towns he listed “all have their own police force; they all have their own street crew; and probably they all have their own planning and zoning. Somehow, their counties figure out a way to compensate them fiscally for the inequities in the system. And we can’t do it.”
He went on to address the county budget directly. “When you’re showing a $50 million budget, of which Chestertown probably funds more than a quarter, and you’re telling me you can’t pony up $40 grand a year […] to compensate for services we’re already paying you for, I’m telling you that is a scam. But what adds hurt to the scam is, we don’t really know what’s going on. We need to be more vigilant. That is not right. And I feel for the school system, I feel your pain, and I have my kids in the public schools. I know you guys have a tough job. But if you cannot find $150, $250 grand for Chestertown, which funds at least a quarter of your budget every single year, to me that is bogus. There’s just no other way to put it.” Both Cerino and Foster were greeted by applause from the large audience.
The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the FY2020 budget at their meeting Tuesday, June 11. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. and will take place in the county commissioners’ hearing room at 400 High St. in Chestertown.