Democratic Candidates for Cecil County Exec, County Council Gently Carve Out Turf at Forum
The Democratic primary election candidates for Cecil County Executive and two new County Council seats had some mostly gentle disagreements with each other during a candidate forum Wednesday evening, in contrast to some of the more embattled discord among members of the county’s current all-Republican government.
The forum, sponsored by Cecil County Democrats and held at Cecil College, featured separate panels for the County Executive candidates—Pam Howard, Robert McKnight and Winston Robinson—and those running in the party’s primary for County Council. James Crouse, the former mayor of Elkton, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary in District 5 while Garrett Billmire and Pamela Bailey are contending against each other in District 1.
Crouse provided some of the most interesting and detailed proposals of the evening, saying that the county should consider some of the revenue-raising ideas he advanced while a councilman and mayor of the county’s largest town for about 24 years. He suggested the county should institute a hotel room tax to garner revenues needed to pay for county services without burdening local residents. He said the Elkton hotel tax generates over $1 million a year just from those establishments located in town limits.
Such fees or “nuisance taxes” on non-residents could be dedicated to specific purposes, Crouse said, such as offsetting the costs of teachers’ pensions that the state government is expected to shift to county government. (Legislation currently before the state Senate would dump about $1.2 million on the county in fiscal 2013 for teacher pension costs previously borne by the state.)
Crouse, who previously worked in management at Union Hospital and is now Vice President of development for NBRS bank, said he could “hit the ground running” as a County Council member. He cited his business and government experience, which includes several years serving as a member of the House of Delegates, but also said there would be much to learn as the county moves for the first time from a commissioner form of government to Charter government after the 2012 election.
In November, Crouse will be running against the winner of the Republican primary in District 5, in which one-term incumbent Robert Hodge is competing against newcomer Keith Moore of North East.
In the County Executive contest, McKnight, the mayor of North East for about 20 years, declared he was the only candidate in the race who had the experience needed to do the job since the town operates under a charter as will the county in the future. “None of us have done this before except me,” McKnight said.
The town of North East has a current operating budget of about $2.7 million while the county’s operating budget is over $163 million, according to town and county websites.
McKnight, who is a full-time employee of Glorious Presence church in Elkton and has the titles of Pastor and Elder according to the church website, said he would “form a stable, functional government” with “one set of rules that apply to everybody.” Asked about funding teacher pension costs, McKnight said, “I’m not a proponent of gambling as a funding source for anything” but suggested the county could ask the state’s legislative delegation to allow using casino local impact aid for that purpose.
Pam Howard, who served 12 years as the elected county Treasurer before losing by less than 200 votes in the 2010 election, said state law was specific that the local casino funds must be used for needs in areas directly impacted by the casino and the county would have to find other ways to “suck it up” to cover county-wide teacher pension costs.
Joking at one point that “I wish I could speak as fast as Bob” within the limited time allowed for answers at the forum, Howard cited her experience managing the county’s money and serving as an independent overseer of county departments’ spending. She said she had initiated cost-savings measures to save taxpayers’ money, experience that would serve her, and citizens, well as the new county executive.
Howard said she has been running a shoestring, largely self-financed campaign for county executive and as a result, “I’m not supported by any special interest groups” and “I’m not beholden to anybody.”
(McKnight’s campaign finance report filed in January showed his campaign was financed almost entirely by individuals and businesses linked to developer Clark Turner, who has several projects underway or planned in the North East area. (SEE previous report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/02/cecil-county-exec-candidates-slow-to-fundraise-but-mcknight-leads-with-clark-turner-donations/ )
The third Democrat in the county executive race, Winston Robinson, is an experienced accounting manager who once worked for Howard in Cecil County and is now senior financial manager for the City of Wilmington.
Robinson said that county government was not the same as operating a business because its purpose is not making a profit but “is there to deliver services.” And, “If you want services you have to pay for it.” He said the county government should co-ordinate operations and “share resources” with the county schools, Cecil College and the library system.
In the contested County Council race in District 1, the two Democrats running in the primary are hoping to unseat incumbent Republican James Mullin, who is now President of the county Board of Commissioners. Mullin is facing a strong GOP primary challenge from Dr. Alan McCarthy, a veterinarian and businessman from Chesapeake City.
Billmire, who lives with his family on an Earleville farm once owned by his grandparents, cited his experience in starting up and co-owning a successful machinery business, which serves the pet food and agricultural industries. He said that experience, including “customer service,” would serve him well in elected office, with the taxpayers as the customers who must be served by government.
He said he had been attending school board meetings as part of his learning experience about county government and believed the schools had been doing “an excellent job in holding down costs.” Billmire has become more involved in county politics since becoming vice president of the county’s Democrat Club.
Bailey, who works as a secretary at the school of technology and ran a losing and invisible campaign against Mullin four years ago, cited her acquaintance with people in the county. “I know people that work in the courthouse,” she said. She complained that the current county government was now “going around, round robin corners” and said, “I’m for the people.”
Asked how she would deal with the state shift of teacher pension costs to the county, Bailey said she would go to Annapolis and “knock on the governor’s door” to ask him why he was doing this. She also said she might ask citizens to “do some of the legwork and help us write grant applications” to ask the state to provide the county with grants to help pay those costs.
(Since the state is dumping the teacher pension costs onto the counties to close its own budget gap, and pension expenses do not qualify for “grants” under any state or federal program on the books, Bailey’s quest would be an obvious exercise in futility, not to mention laughter, in Annapolis.)