Cecil County Commish Will Not Cut per Pupil School Funds, but Protest State Pension Cost Shift to County
Cecil County Commissioners will provide at least the same level of per pupil schools spending in the upcoming county budget as provided this year, Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) said Tuesday, even if the state passes on some of the costs of teacher pensions to the county.
During last year’s budget deliberations, Broomell advocated “keeping the option open” of asking the state for a waiver of the so-called “maintenance of effort” rules that require a county to provide at least the same level of per pupil funding as in the previous year. But county budget officials pointed out that Cecil County’s economic situation was not so dire that the state would consider a waiver and eventually the commissioners agreed to abide by the maintenance of effort requirement.
In response to a Cecil Times question, Broomell said that the commissioners have “collectively agreed we will not be seeking a waiver” for the Fiscal 2013 budget. She noted the costs of school maintenance, repairs and other costs will require adequate funds in the new budget.
(However, since school enrollment is calculated at 111 fewer students than in the current budget year, the ‘maintenance of effort’ level will be $485,000 less in county funds in the new budget.)
The news came as a relief to some members of the county School Board, who joined the commissioners and the county’s educational leadership Tuesday as part of a statewide campaign to protest the proposed shift of half of the costs of teacher, library and community college staff pensions to county government. The state currently picks up all the costs but the Governor and some state legislative leaders say the time has come to shift up to half of the costs back to the counties.
At a morning press conference, all five County Commissioners joined with leaders of the county schools, Cecil College, the library and the Cecil County Classroom Teachers Association to denounce the proposal and urge local citizens to contact state legislators to demand that the state clean up the pension system without dumping half the burden on local government.
County governments, labor organizations, teachers and community colleges have formed a statewide “Stop the Shift” coalition. The group has created a website, http://www.stoptheshiftmd.com/ that provides detailed information on the issue, including county by county cost estimates of the impact of the pending budget proposal that would pass through half of the pension costs to the counties in a staged phase-in.
The coalition calculates that Cecil County would have to pay about $4.3 million in Fiscal 2013, which begins July 1, 2012. The costs would escalate to $6.4 million in Fiscal 2017 for Cecil County.
Statewide, the proposal would cost counties about $240 million in Fiscal 2013 and $1.6 billion over the next five years, according to the coalition.
Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) said the key cause of the state educational pension crisis has been a policy of underfunding state contributions to the system in the past decade. In 2000, the pension funds had more than enough assets to cover liabilities of future promised pension benefits to teachers and related educational personnel. But now pension funds are woefully inadequate to meet the obligations to teachers in the future.
Dr. Stephen Pannill, president of Cecil College, said a change in the method of computing the state’s contribution formula, a vote by the General Assembly in 2006 to increase benefits—retroactive to 1998—and underfunding are responsible for the state pension crisis.
Some critics of the current system have argued that the counties have had no incentive to take into account the costs of pensions when they give popular pay raises to local teachers while the state was responsible for picking up the tab for higher pension benefits based on higher salaries.
But Dr. D’ette Devine, superintendent of the county public schools, said that “salaries are not the cause of this problem” and in fact Cecil County teachers have had no cost of living raise in two years.
Commissioners Board President James Mullin (R-1) said the commissioners were encouraging all citizens to contact state legislators to protest the “pension shift” to the counties.
But Mullin refused to criticize Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36), who first proposed dumping part of the teacher pension costs back on the counties in a budget proposal two years ago and in legislation he sponsored last year in Annapolis. “I think the key thing we’re doing today is to deal with today, and not the past,” Mullin said.
Legislative analysts last year scored the Pipkin bill, SB 629, as costing Cecil County over $14.1 million over a four-year period. Pipkin sought to challenge the nonpartisan fiscal analysis of the bill by the legislative analysts and he claimed Cecil County would not pay any extra costs. But he pulled the bill from consideration shortly before a scheduled hearing.
Pipkin had also proposed forcing newly hired teachers to participate in a plan similar to a 401(K) “defined contribution” retirement plan, instead of the traditional “defined benefit” pension that pays a guaranteed monthly benefit upon retirement.