Cecil County Budget: Commissioners Spread Pain/ Cecil Times Special Report
The Cecil County Commissioners have drafted a Fiscal 2012 budget that would cut county public schools by $1.2 million, slash 4 percent off the county libraries’ budget, slice 3 percent from Cecil College funds, and force the county Sheriff’s office to absorb over $700,000 in lost state aid for work-release prisoners at the jail.
In interviews with The Cecil Times, participants in the closed-door discussions Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as representatives of county departments affected by the budget cuts, described the process and the impact the proposals would have on county services. In general, the Commissioners decided to “nick” most programs and departments to spread out the “pain” of a difficult budget year.
But some departments, especially the county public schools, feel they got “nicked” more than others proportionately, despite proposing frugal budgets to the Commissioners.
The Commissioners had to bridge a roughly $9 million gap between revenues and proposed expenditures, with their discussions predicated upon a resolve to keep the property tax rate at the “constant yield” level to avoid tax increases. The commissioners held to that pledge, by cutting about $8 million from spending and tapping $1 million from county reserve funds, sources said.
But due to declining property values, the “constant yield” level—to keep the same amount of revenues from property taxes to the county next year as in the current fiscal year—the property tax rate would rise slightly, from the current .9153 cents per $100 of assessed property value to .9451 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Depending upon an individual property’s current state property tax assessment, actual tax bills could go down or rise slightly.
The actual budget deliberations were more civil than might have been expected, according to multiple sources, given that the County Commissioners have been frequently divided on a 3-2 voting pattern since two new members took office after the November 2010 elections.
The only heavily political moments on the all-Republican board came when new Commissioner Michael Dunn (R- 3) offered a partisan riff, asserting that as Republicans, the board members should steadfastly oppose any fee increases for customers in the Seneca Point wastewater service area, regardless of the costs involved in providing services to area residents. Dunn was mostly silent on other budget issues, sources said.
But the 3-2 voting bloc came to the forefront in decisions on the Cecil County public schools budget. A majority—consisting of James Mullin (R-1), Diana Broomell (R-4) and Dunn—decided to cut the schools budget by $1.2 million, yielding the bare minimum required to comply with state “maintenance of effort” requirements. Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-2) dissented.
That decision was a rejection of a recommendation by a citizens’ budget advisory panel, which advocated cutting the schools budget by $1 million—or giving $200,000 more than the Commissioners granted. (See previous Cecil Times report here:
County schools sources criticized the commissioners’ decision, telling Cecil Times that the cuts were in fact below “maintenance of effort’ level funding because in the final hours of the General Assembly, legislators decided to dump $317,000 in costs on to Cecil County schools to cover “administrative costs” for teacher pensions. As a result of the county proposals, the schools will have to cut staff positions or take other drastic steps, schools sources said, on top of already presenting a bare bones budget that included staff reductions and layoffs. (See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/01/commissioners-seek-budget-guidance-from-citizens-but-dont-give-any-to-schools/
In fact, the county schools issued layoff notices to more than 40 currently employed personnel on Wednesday, sources said, based on the budget proposal submitted to the county. It was unclear if the schools would consider additional layoff notices in light of the county Commissioners’ new budget reductions.
“I don’t think the schools can go any further,” said a county schools source. In addition, the schools are facing significant new cuts in federal aid, especially for career and technology education under new budget cuts adopted in the past few weeks by Congress. Nearly $300,000 in federal aid to Cecil County for vo-tech education is expected to be cut under several programs, sources said.
County Commissioners killed a proposed new four-year tech school last year in the capital improvement budget, and there is no current plan to build such a facility. County students now have limited, part-time access to vo-tech or career education services.
County Commissioner sources said that advocates of the county schools have been very active in sending emails and calling commissioners to support the schools.
Meanwhile, the county Commissioners took a more conservative position than the previous county board on tapping “reserve funds” to bridge the gap between needed spending and available revenues. The new Fiscal 2012 budget proposal would tap those reserve funds by $1 million, in contrast to the current Fiscal 2011 budget that raided the reserve/emergency funds by nearly $2.7 million, sources said.
Commissioner Moore said she strongly advocated a cautious policy about tapping into “reserve” or “unallocated” funds to meet day-to-day expenses because of what she has seen, as a Board member of the Maryland Association of Counties (MAACO), as the likely fiscal future of Maryland.
“It is not prudent,” she said, to raid such emergency funds when it is highly likely that the next legislative session in Annapolis will dump more costs on the counties. She said she took a “hard line” on holding some reserve funds back from this year’s county budget process because the prospects for massive shifts of costs from the state to the county are likely next year.
In other budget decisions, the Commissioners offered a slap on the wrists to the county Sheriff’s office, cutting about $700,000 that is roughly the same figure as the loss of state aid to the “CARC” (Community Adult Rehabilitation Center) unit of the local jail. The state eliminated that aid for future budgets. (See previous Cecil Times news report on CARC funds losses here:
But sources said the Commissioners were annoyed that the Sheriff’s department had not made other cuts in programs or expenses to compensate for that loss of funds. As a result, the Commissioners decided to pass on that loss of state funds to the Sheriff, with the department having to decide how to compensate for that loss of funds.
“We’re not going to be the Sugar Daddy for the Sheriff,” one Commissioner said.
[UPDATE: The Cecil County Sheriff and his senior staff will meet with the County Commissioners on Tuesday, to discuss the budget. After reviewing the proposed budget, the Sheriff’s Department is “going to regroup,” according to Major Jeff Clewer, who is in charge of the Community Corrections/Detention Center. The jail was a source of budget concern among the Commissioners.
“We will present some additional recommendations,” Clewer told Cecil Times. But whatever possible revisions may be proposed, they will “Not compromise our service, security and safety” duties to citizens, he said.]
In other budget decisions, the Commissioners cut $50,000 plus an equal amount for a staff position from the county Economic Development office. Sources described a proposal, advocated by Broomell and Mullin during the budget talks, to create an unspecified “regional” economic development position, without specifying how to fund it, for a politically well-connected Republican aligned with state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36).
The county budget office has posted a detailed line item budget proposal on the country website here:
Commissioner Hodge noted that the proposed county budget proposals are just that: proposals. A public hearing will be held on May 10 and commissioners will consider citizen input before making any final budget decisions.