Cecil County Commissioners Adopt Budget, 3-2; Moore Blasts Political “BS”–Mullin Says GOP Should Fight in Private

May 24, 2011

The Cecil County Commissioners adopted the Fiscal 2012 budget Tuesday on a 3-2 vote, with lots of drama and accusations of “political BS.”

The all-Republican board showed divisions as Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) blasted Board President James Mullin (R-1) and a burgeoning board majority he controls. She glared at Mullin and declared that she “didn’t see any courage” in the budget process and “what I’m seeing now is a lot of political BS.”

The perpetually polite Moore became visibly angry, as she railed against what she called a “carefully orchestrated attempt to try to control things in Cecil County.” Before she could complete her sentence, Mullin suddenly jumped in and hit his gavel to silence her, saying to Moore, “you’re out of line.”

Mullin declared, “I don’t think it’s prudent for us as Republicans” to fight in public, adding that “we should do that behind closed doors as Republicans.”

But much of what Moore and Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) objected to about the budget process—as reflected by their votes against the new budget– was behind-the-scenes collaborations or deals among Mullin and his allies, Commissioners Michael Dunn (R-3) and Diana Broomell (R-4), who have become a voting bloc on the county board.

Moore said the budget “should be a thoughtful process” but the last-minute decision on Monday to cut a half-cent from the property tax rate was “foolish and irresponsible” because it tapped county reserve or “fund balances” designed to cover emergency expenses. She said that the county is “going to spend 40 percent of the savings” that past commissioners built up to cushion the county against economic hard times and which will likely be needed next year to cover costs passed on to the county by state government.

Mullin has been the leader of a persistent three-vote faction, including Commissioners Broomell and Dunn, since Dunn and Broomell assumed office last December. Mullin and Dunn are firmly aligned with the political machine led by Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) and Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) but Broomell had been previously considered more independent of the so-called “Smipkin” political organization. (Dunn and Broomell are both former legislative aides to Smigiel but Broomell quit that office several years ago.)

Moore’s comments, before they were interrupted by Mullin, were widely seen as a call-out to the Smipkin organization’s attempts to control Cecil County government and politics. Smipkin allies have also taken control of the county’s Republican Central Committee.

Hodge took a more low-key, but still pointed, approach, saying the new budget was “short-sighted” and other commissioners “are absolutely looking for the short-term political gain,” rather than “investing” in the long-term benefits to the county in education and training students for the jobs of the future.

Hodge said “we cut more than we needed to” in the new budget and those cuts “will come back to haunt us.” He cited the cuts to education funds in particular. “We need a cultural change in Cecil County,” Hodge said, and parents and children must realize that the jobs of the future will require more than just a high school diploma. He cited the loss of many regional manufacturing jobs and said that the Commissioners “have ignored that fact.” He criticized “political people” who “throw stones at the schools.” He said investment in the schools was an investment in the future economy of the county,

The Commissioners decided to cut $1.2 million from the county public schools and the Mullin majority of the board firmly resisted attempts by Moore and Hodge to restore $314,000 to the schools to offset the impact of a last-minute state mandate to cover administrative costs of school employee pensions, a first-time ever mandate from the state.

As part of the budget adoption, a majority of the commissioners agreed that the new property tax rate is .9401 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, or a half-cent below the “constant yield” rate. The new property tax rate was formally approved Tuesday by the Commissioners on a 4-1 vote, with Moore voting no as part of her objections to tapping reserve funds for short-term “political” gains.

That reduction was accomplished by tapping the county’s “fund balance,” or reserve funds. Moore protested repeatedly about tapping those funds because, as an officer of the Maryland Association of Counties, she has seen detailed data on the potential fiscal impact of upcoming shifts of costs from the state to the counties.

The new budget tapped the “fund balance” by $1.64 million, county budget officials said, but commissioners also cut spending by $7.7 million.

Broomell defended the budget as “responsible” while Dunn declared that the budget commendably “reduced government.”

In some last minute revisions, the Commissioners negotiated with the county Sheriff to resolve a long-running budget feud centered on the loss of $700,000 in state aid for the Community Adult Rehabilitation Center (CARC) associated with the county jail. In the end, the county and the Sheriff split the difference—sort of—with the Sheriff coming up with $305,000 in budget cuts and the county agreeing to come up with $395,000 to meet part of the funding shortfall.

County sources said there would be some re-organization of components of the Sheriff’s department and the jail operations to achieve some cost savings. The County Commissioners had issued a shot across the budget bow to “get the attention” of the Sheriff, as one county source described the situation. There were some last minute discussions on Monday between the county and the independent Sheriff to achieve a compromise.

In one last minute concession to Cecil College, the Commissioners agreed, as part of a five-year capital budget to pay for construction projects, to move up by a year construction of a new math and science building, putting it in the Fiscal 2013 budget instead of the Fiscal 2014 capital budget. However, that decision could be rescinded next year. The overall capital improvements budget for the new FY12 year is $17.89 million and it was adopted unanimously by the commissioners.

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