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Outrage and Angst in Elkton: State Legislators Commiserate with Cecil County Commissioners

July 13, 2011
By Nancy Schwerzler

Members of Cecil County’s state legislative delegation shared the fiscal and environmental pain facing the Cecil County Commissioners at a Tuesday meeting marked by some previews of upcoming election campaign themes.

Overall, it was a polite session between the delegation and the county board, which has often been divided between acolytes and critics of the delegation leadership. Past hatchets were buried as most of the group united against a common enemy: the state government and looming “mandates” that could cost Cecil County millions of dollars.

Attending the session were Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Del. Michael Smigiel, and Del. Jay Jacobs, all R-36th District, along with Del. Mary-Dulany James (D-34A) who represents a tiny sliver of western Cecil County in addition to her Harford County base. Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford/Cecil) and Del. David Rudolph (D-34B) did not attend but sent aides to sit at the table to answer questions and report back on the session to their bosses.

Del. Stephen Hershey (R-36) did not attend or send an aide while Cecil County Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) was the lone commissioner absentee.

Sen. Pipkin dominated the session, honing his Annapolis rhetoric with frequent denunciations of Democrats and Gov. Martin O’Malley. On the proposal to raise tolls on the Hatem bridge between Cecil and Harford counties, Pipkin declared, “It’s outrageous” three times in about as many minutes.

Del. James took a practical approach, saying she was working with others to review case law in other states that might apply in Maryland to address the toll issue legally.

The county is also facing a November deadline to come up with a Watershed Implementation Plan, designed to limit pollutants flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. But the federal data needed to develop the plan won’t be ready until August and commissioners worried that the limits could bar economic development projects that might contribute to pollution.

“It appears they don’t want Cecil County to grow,” said Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5), citing the watershed rules and other proposed state limits on septic systems in rural areas as potential nails in the county’s economic coffin.

Del. Jacobs, the former mayor of Rock Hall in Kent County, took a low-key approach and spoke knowledgably about the Bay cleanup issue, based on his two years service on the state Critical Areas Commission. He warned that the costs of implementing the watershed plan could be astronomical, with test plans in Caroline County estimated to cost $3 million to up to $2 billion in Anne Arundel County.

“I don’t know where the counties are going to get the money” to implement the watershed plan, Jacobs said. He also criticized the O’Malley administration and the General Assembly for diverting money from the Bay Restoration Fund (with revenues derived from the so-called “flush tax” on septic systems) to the state’s general fund.

Pipkin declared that the watershed plan mandates reflect a federal agenda of “trying to micro-manage Cecil County from Washington.” And the combination of the watershed rules and potential limits on septic systems proposed by O’Malley reflect a “war on rural Maryland,” Pipkin said, echoing a political battle cry he and Smigiel have raised in Annapolis, on a website, and in radio and TV interviews around the state in recent months.

Smigiel railed against what he called “the whole gestalt” of the O’Malley administration to force people to move to urban areas and to “subjugate” the counties to state power through a related “Plan Maryland” proposal that sets priorities for growth areas in each county. Cecil County officials have strongly opposed the proposal, which did not include the long-planned Bainbridge re-development project in Port Deposit.

Del. James said lawmakers should “be intelligent about it” and work to address any omissions of the county’s long-planned development projects such as Bainbridge. She said she has talked with the State Secretary of Planning and received assurance that Plan Maryland would not over-rule local authority and was an attempt to co-ordinate already existing maps for various programs, from ‘smart growth’ to critical environmental areas.

She noted that Plan Maryland “is not legislation” and is not a law and said she would work with state officials to add an “overlay” of counties’ own planning efforts, such as Cecil County’s recently updated Comprehensive Plan that specifies a growth corridor in the Route 40/I-95 area.

Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) said the commissioners have received personal calls from state planning officials to reassure them that the state was not trying to usurp local planning authority. Moore, who serves on the board of the Maryland Association of Counties, said the issue will be a hot topic when county leaders meet with state planning officials at their annual convention.

The group touched briefly on the potential impact of the state shifting costs of teachers’ pensions to the counties. The state currently covers the full cost but proposals were raised this year in the General Assembly to begin pushing some of the burden to county governments. Such a shift of costs to the county “would put you all in a real tailspin,” Del. James said.

Everyone in the room was too polite to mention that Pipkin proposed legislation this year that would have dumped some of the teacher pension costs on the counties. He claimed his bill would not hurt Cecil County but non-partisan state legislative analysts disagreed and reported it would have cost Cecil County $14.1 million over four years. The bill had a quick death in Annapolis, but three Cecil County commissioners tied to Pipkin refused to criticize the bill on a vote of the local board.

[See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/03/cecil-commish-split-on-pipkin-teacher-pensions-bill-patriots-protest-pipkin-mandate/

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One Response to Outrage and Angst in Elkton: State Legislators Commiserate with Cecil County Commissioners

  1. TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT on July 13, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    It struck me that Commissioner Dunn was absent again! Maybe we should keep a running tally on how many meetings the commissioners miss…

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