Talbot County will be at a political crossroad in the election cycle of 2018. Voters are faced with crucial decisions on the future of the County. Public school funding is the overriding issue, but close behind are very substantive issues of public safety, health care and the environment.
The presence of the revenue cap has allowed county leaders and residents as well to minimize incremental funding increases to county infrastructure and services for some years. As a result, Talbot has dug itself a deep hole in terms of competitive salaries for teachers and public safety employees. Between outright cutbacks and token increases in health department, public safety and education over time, Talbot County has become uncompetitive in terms of salary, benefits and the resulting high staff turnover.
Some Republicans finally seem to acknowledge that the revenue cap needs to be raised or removed. They have felt the pressure in this election year to respond to the critical public demand for more substantive funding of the TCPS. Having come to the rescue of the Tilghman Elementary School, at a cost of about $13,000 per student, the council must now begin to come to the rescue of the remainder of our school children, who have been receiving less than $7,000 per student per year.
The sheriff’s department loses staff to other jurisdictions because of uncompetitive salaries and retirement programs as well as the inability to fully train new department recruits. There are barely enough officers available to sustain adequate patrols to ensure public safety — even in the face of additional demands (like school safety and the opioid crisis). The health department is barely able to keep up with increasing demands for service in the face of the opioid crisis and needs of the large number of senior citizens in Talbot County. As seniors’ demand for health care services increase in the face of attacks upon the Affordable Care Act coverage, the county infrastructure will become more of a focal point for desperate residents in need of life-saving health care.
And yet, the current county council still seemed to dread any revenue cap increase, worrying more about the support from the taxpayers association than the great majority of middle class Talbot County residents who are being seriously deprived of the basic public services we desperately need. The current members of the county council all appear to be well-meaning individuals. Yet as Republicans, they are philosophically wedded to the discredited narrative that any tax increase is detrimental to society. As Democrats, we seek to keep taxes as low as possible within reason. In Talbot County, at this moment, we are living on the edge of major breakdowns in services on several levels. Yet Republican leaders’ greatest struggle appears to be breaking even marginally with the amorphous taxpayers association.
Certainly, Talbot County taxpayers must be aware that this county maintains by far the lowest property tax rate of any county in Maryland. Certainly, neither taxpayers nor politicians desire higher taxes. Yet thousands of middle class taxpayers rely on our public schools, public safety and public health infrastructure. Average middle class taxpayers seem to understand that the time has come to protect our public services from becoming stretched beyond the ability of our leadership to adapt.
By incrementally increasing our commitments to our primary services, we can move toward ensuring secure levels of public safety, public health and public education. The average actual property tax increase for taxpayers would approximate $90 for 2018 based upon the .0353-cent increase for taxpayers with a property assessed at $ 250,000 in the town of Easton.
The question for middle class voters becomes “How important is it to trade the equivalent of 2 cartons of cigarettes for adequate police protection, for competitive teacher salaries and for health service resources in the face of the opioid crisis?” After years of kicking the revenue cap issue down the road, Talbot County is facing a crisis. I don’t smoke, but I doubt you can buy 2 cartons of cigarettes for much less than $90. I wonder if some residents would even notice the difference. Would your upcoming federal tax break not cover that many times over? With federal programs available to help residents on fixed incomes, that impact should also be mitigated.
No one wants to pay higher county property tax for nothing. No one. The county council was nearly frozen with the fear of political fallout. Yet the actual cost not only is marginal, but Talbot would still have a far lower property tax rate than all but one county in Maryland. Hopefully, Talbot County’s middle class will gain the better perspective that small, incremental property tax increases are in their own best interests.
Dominic “Mickey” Terrone is a member of the Talbot County Democratic Forum. He writes from Oxford. (demforum.com).