Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Rollin' in it

On the heels of last year's $20 million budget surplus comes news of more unexpected increases in county revenue.

Overall, the county collected $360.3 million by October's end, compared with predictions of $340.8 million by that time, according to Jonathon Seeman, the county budget director. The increase is 5.7 percent more than predicted. The revenue also represents an 11.6 percent increase over last year at the same time, and reflects better than expected results from income and property taxes, building permits and various fees, Seeman said.
While it is still to early to say if there will be a budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2006, the county's bottom line appears headed for the black. Of course, the economy changes all the time, and any change for the worse could push revenue back down to predicted levels. Thus, I'm still of the opinion that we see how things play out before we start talking about tax cuts.

That said, budget folks are often pretty good at predicting revenue, having years of experience and tons of data to help in such forecasts. And, given the sizeable revenue increases we've seen in just the first quarter of the budget, I don't think it's a stretch to say we could see a very significant budget surplus this year (simply extrapolating the first quarter increase out to the end of the year would yield an almost $80 million surplus). Obviously, this isn't free money--we're all paying for it--and there are significant needs--for instance, $400 million for future retiree health benefits--but our fiscal condition is clearly improved over where it was only a few years ago.

Sure as the night becomes day, many folks are already planning how to spend this money. From the above story:

None of the four County Council members at the meeting offered a view of what the increased revenue might mean at budget time next spring. But council Chairman and county executive candidate Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who was out of town and did not attend the meeting, called for a tax cut when he learned about the figures a day later.

"We are overcharging citizens," he said, noting the county had a $20.4 million surplus last fiscal year.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, another candidate for county executive, said after the meeting that a tax cut is always possible, though he would not want the next executive to face a potential revenue deficit because of a short-term tax cut.

...Pat Dornan, who led a grass-roots petition drive against Robey's 30 percent local income tax increase in 2003, said the news reinforces his belief that taxes are too high. "There absolutely should be a tax cut," he said.

No surprises there.

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