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Cecil County Budget: Commissioners Make Sort-of Decisions, Clear as Mud

May 17, 2011
By Nancy Schwerzler

The Cecil County Commissioners on Tuesday decided—sort of—to ease some education budget cuts, but to hang tough against the county Sheriff and dismiss pleas from the county library system. A majority also continued a cryptic campaign to cut funds and re-vamp the county’s Economic Development office, but without specifying their ultimate agenda.

Amidst lots of mumbling, winks, nods and a few dagger-looks among the Commissioners, the panel made some decisions but there were major caveats that could easily unravel in the next few days. The Commissioners will meet again on Thursday to discuss the budget.

Only Cecil College scored a semi-win, with Commissioners agreeing unanimously to restore about $120,000 to the school’s budget so that tuition for students would not be increased. The Commissioners had proposed cutting more than twice that amount from the college, but school leaders struck a compromise by agreeing to meet the county halfway and absorb slightly more than half of the cut.

The Cecil County public schools won what could be a temporary victory, with a sort-of majority endorsing restoration of $314,000 for the schools to offset a last-minute mandate shifted to the local schools by the state General Assembly. That mandate forces the schools to pay administrative costs for teacher pensions, which are currently funded by the state but which a growing movement in Annapolis wants to shift to the counties.

Two Cecil County Commissioners endorsed the restoration only if the money could be offset by cuts in other programs. So that decision was shaky, with Commissioners Tari Moore (R-2) and Jim Mullin (R-1), insisting they would only support the funding if it did not come from the county’s reserve funds or “fund balance.” County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) had proposed the funding restoration, but said it should come from the fund balance account.

Mullin spoke for Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3), saying, “Mike opposes everything” for giving more funds to the schools. Previously, Dunn did say that he thought the county public schools should do more with less because private schools educate children at a lower cost-per-student. Moore pointed out that private schools do not have to obey costly state mandates as do public schools and private schools can choose which students to admit.

It appears unlikely that the Commissioners will find acceptable cuts in other programs in the next few days to offset the proposed small restoration of funds to the schools. Overall, the Commissioners cut $1.2 million from the county schools to comply with the bare-bones minimum “maintenance of effort” level required by state law. Hodge had proposed easing that cut by tapping county reserve funds, or the “fund balance,” to provide the extra $314,000.

While discussing education money, Moore and Hodge, who have often been voting allies, glared at each other as they bantered back and forth about where the county might obtain offsetting spending cuts in other programs. “Where have you been,” each of them retorted to one another at various points in the discussion.

Hodge said he was willing to tap county reserve funds to support education, beyond the already tapped $1 million in overall reserve funds that the commissioners used to reach their broader budget goals. But Moore insisted that the county could not afford to commit reserved money to the current budget because the state is likely to dump additional costs, such as teacher pension obligations, onto the county in the future.

Moore has previously stated her support for the schools in the current budget process, but her position outlined Tuesday would likely jeopardize restoration of the funds for the public schools if county reserve funds are not utilized.

In other action, the Commissioners quickly rebuffed an attempt by Hodge to restore $50,000 to the county library system, which the Commissioners had cut by 4 percent in their budget proposal.

Hodge also proposed restoring $350,000 from previous cuts to the county Sheriff’s Department, but fellow commissioners shot down that proposal. The Commissioners had previously proposed cutting over $700,000 from the Sheriff’s office because they felt Sheriff Barry Janney had not made enough other budget cuts to offset the loss of over $700,000 in state aid for the CARC (Community Adult Rehabilitation Center) program.

In recent meetings, the Sheriff had proposed other budget cuts but the county calculated the net cuts still left about $580,000 in extra funds being sought. Mullin said the Sheriff still needed to “squeeze the lemon.” Moore said the Sheriff “needed to go back to the drawing board.”

So Hodge’s proposal to restore some funds to the Sheriff’s department, paid out of the county’s fund balance, died for lack of a second. Commissioners agreed to get back together with the Sheriff to discuss the budget impasse further, but they admitted they lack legal authority to tell the Sheriff—who is considered a state government official—how to manage his budget.

Nevertheless, Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) insisted that deputies’ “take home” cars represented a potential cost-cutting area and said that such usage should be limited by the county.

Finally, the Commissioners refused to restore funds previously cut from the county’s Economic Development and Tourism department, as Mullin and Broomel hinted at a broader agenda to overhaul the office, which is now headed by Vernon Thompson, a former state economic development official. The county’s citizen economic development commission and local business leaders have protested the proposed gutting of the county department, citing the recession and the need to attract business and employers to the county.

The Commissioners previously proposed cutting over $100,000 from the department, including$50,000 for a marketing staff position recently vacated by Erika Quesenberry, who left to become the town administrator in Port Deposit, and an equal amount for other economic development expenses. Hodge proposed putting a placeholder in the budget for a marketing staffer, even if the post were not immediately filled.

But Mullin and Broomell nixed that suggestion, as Mullin said he wanted to “ramp up” that office and perhaps conduct a “national search” for someone else in that office.

Mullin has been making semi-veiled assertions that he wants to re-organize the county economic development office, and he has tried to advance an as yet unsupported plan through a tri-county regional development council, to potentially find a home for a politically well-connected Republican tied to State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36).

Unlike Thompson, who has a long record of achievement in state and local economic development, the likely recipient of Mullin’s advocacy, John Dillman, is not an experienced economic development executive.

[See previous Cecil Times report on Dillman and Mullin’s agenda here:

http://ceciltimes.com/2011/05/dillman-out-as-head-of-planning-group-cecil-county-ponders-taking-in-orphaned-office/

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One Response to Cecil County Budget: Commissioners Make Sort-of Decisions, Clear as Mud

  1. Joe on May 20, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Nice to see that Mullin is nothing but a liar. He said Tuesday that he would support the $314,000 if it could be found somewhere other than the fund balance. But on Thursday, a little over $366,000 was found– and yet he still voted against the 314k. I wish I could tell such blatant lies in my own line of work and still keep my job. Mullin, you sir are an [word deleted].

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