Citizens’ Budget Panel Urges Cecil County Hiring Freeze, “Level” School Funds
A citizenâs budget advisory committee urged Cecil County Commissioners Tuesday to impose a hiring freeze for most county employee positions, keep the county schools budget at the current level, and reject a proposal for a limited county-operated ambulance service.
The report also urged opening up community services all over the county to receipt of âlocal impact aidâ revenues from the Hollywood Casino in Perryville, instead of the current county policy limiting funds to projects located west of Route 272.
James Butkiewicz, chairman of the panel, told the commissioners that there was âa pretty strong consensus in our committeeâ that the geographic restrictions on use of slots revenues âdoesnât make senseâ and âlocal to us means the county.â
It was the second year for a citizensâ panel to review county departments and programs to offer budget advice to the County Commissioners. Last year, the panel made several recommendations, on schoolsâ funding and cutting health benefits costs, that the Commissioners rejected.
This year, the panel said that budget requests from county departments and programs exceeded projected available revenues by $14.2 million. The panelâs report said members had been advised by county officials that those requests would have to be cut by $10.6 million and that an estimated $3.6 million could come from using county âfund balancesâ or reserve funds.
One of the areas to win the panelâs approval for new staffing was a recent proposal by Sheriff Barry Janney to take over security at the county courthouse, because Cecil County is the only county in the state without armed security forces at its Circuit courthouse. Janney proposed to the Commissioners last week hiring five contractual, part-time, armed officers, with full law enforcement powers, who would be employees of the Sheriffâs Department but without benefits.
Janney said at a budget hearing last Wednesday that he anticipated using retired law enforcement officers for the contractual employees.
âWe think we probably should have armed security at the courthouse, sad to say,â Butkiewicz told the commissioners.
But Janneyâs other requests for more deputies were shot down by the budget advisory panel. Janney has told the commissioners he wanted to hire five new deputies, including one additional deputy to be assigned to the Drug Task Force and one who would be detailed to work on investigating the rising problem of prescription drug abuse.
In his presentation to the County Commissioners, Janney outlined his departmentâs work, in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, to crack down on improper practices of some âpain managementâ health care providers and doctor-shopping by pill addicts. âThese prescription investigations are very labor intensive and require a high degree of complexity,â Janney told the commissioners in justifying the new position.
Janney also requested 2 positions at the community corrections/work-release portion of the detention center facility but the panel rejected that idea and also said that five currently vacant positions should not be filled, at salary savings of over $300,000. In addition, the sheriffâs department has agreed with the panelâs recommendation to work toward consolidating its Information Technology functions with those of the county government, for possible savings of $625,000.
Meanwhile, the county public schools had asked for a small increase of about $671,000 over the current yearâs budget provided by the county and the advisory panel rejected that increase. Instead, the panelâs report urged what is called âflat fundingâ of the schools, or keeping the countyâs share at the same level in the new budget as currently provided.
But even that funding level has options for further cuts while still complying with the bare-minimum, or âmaintenance of effort,â funding level required of the county by state law. That is because the state mandate is based upon the student enrollment, and for the new budget year the county schools are showing a 111-pupil decline. That translates into possible additional cuts of $485,000 in county funds, while still complying with the maintenance of effort rules.
Last year, Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) urged the county to consider seeking a waiver from the state of the maintenance of effort requirement, but eventually the commissioners did not pursue that option. And this year, Broomell said several months ago that the commissioners had agreed among themselves that they would provide at least the maintenance of effort level of funding and would not seek a waiver.
Since then, the General Assembly has passed new legislation to put more teeth into the maintenance of effort mandate, providing that if a county did not provide sufficient funds, the state would withhold income tax revenues due to the county and instead turn over funds directly to a local school board to make up any funding shortfall.
But even providing funds at the âmaintenance of effortâ level in the new FY2013 budget could pose problems for the schools, which had to lay off some staff and teachers in the current budget yearâthe only county department that had to do soâto cope with the limited budget imposed this year. The budget advisory panel had also proposed âlevelâ funding of the schools in its previous report but the County Commissioners made deeper cuts for Fiscal 2012.
In other key findings, the budget advisory panel ruled out a new proposal by county Emergency Services director Richard Brooks to create a county-operated basic ambulance service, to supplement the services provided by the countyâs volunteer fire companies. The proposalâwhich could cost over $6 million over a four year period– has triggered controversy and opposition from a majority of the countyâs fire companies, according to the president of the county firemenâs association.
The budget panelâs decision was based purely on the costs, The panel said the volunteer fire companies were working on cheaper alternatives, but did not take into account the new proposal made by the volunteers last week for a Cecilton/Hackâs Point part-time paid staffing solution for the southern Cecil County area that has the slowest response times for emergency medical services in the county. That plan would cost the county $100,000 in the new budget year, local officials said.
[SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/04/cecil-county-volunteer-fire-companies-propose-cecilton-ambo-solution/ ]