As a nation, we are facing the worst economic blow since the Great Depression. State and local governments around the country are preparing austerity budgets as we enter an extended ‘new normal’ in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But not St. Michaels. The majority leadership of the town commissioners apparently believes the old normal will come charging back over the next fiscal year. That is contrary to what most leading economists and business leaders expect.
Unlike other municipalities, we are handing out pay raises, and committing the town, in this time of uncertainty, to new debt for capital projects that should be delayed. The commissioners, by a vote of three-to-two, have passed a budget that snips a bit here and there, but falls far short of what’s needed. The majority leadership is forging ahead with building a new $3-million-dollar town office that’s too big, too expensive, and in the wrong place. They also want to spend another $200,000 to extend brick sidewalks on Talbot Street far beyond the core business district. And they are dipping into the town’s reserve funds to balance a bloated budget.
We can’t go on as if this pandemic never happened and will soon disappear. St. Michaels depends heavily on tourism for revenue. Will tourists come flocking back? Not likely, since all of the events that have drawn them in the past have been cancelled. And probably not likely until we have a vaccine, widespread testing, contact tracing, and proven drugs for treatment. Yet the leadership has budgeted for a mere 25-percent drop in tourism traffic.
This is not a time for head-in-the-sand policies. And it’s not a time for business-as-usual. Yes, the commissioners claim they can adjust the budget later, if necessary. Instead, we should be reducing our debt load rather than adding to it. We should be investing in our future now…building on our resources to diversify the local economy. If we don’t act now, the owners of the town’s 835 taxable properties will be left to carry the entire load.
This is a critical moment in our town’s history and there is no room for error, and no room in our budget for excess, or personal agendas. We are asking the majority leadership to restructure the budget now, instead of waiting until the full weight of financial ruin is upon us. We all hope the town will recover quickly, but we should also be prepared if it doesn’t.
Sue Ann Raring