Cecil County Drafts $169 Million Budget; Schools Get “Flat” Funds; Property Tax Rate at “Constant Yield”
The Cecil County Commissioners have drafted a $169 million proposed budget for Fiscal 2013 that would freeze public schools funds at the current level, give a 1 percent cost-of-living raise to county employees and set property taxes at the “constant yield” rate.
But since overall revenues from income taxes and property taxes paid to the county are down due to the recession and lower property values, it will take a slight increase in the property tax rate to yield the same, or “constant,” level of money coming into county coffers. As a result, county officials said, the county property tax rate will rise slightly, from .9401 cents per $100 of assessed property value to .9957 cents in the new budget year, which begins July 1.
The proposed budget also taps reserve funds for $3 million to provide over half of a $5.9 million increase in county spending in the new budget year. But $2.4 million of that figure is actually a contingency plan for the anticipated state shift of teacher pension costs to the county.
The draft budget proposal was hammered out in several closed door sessions of the County Commissioners over the past few weeks. Those sessions were much less contentious than last year’s budget process, according to some participants, but they were still not without some partisan sniping among board members who have been sharply divided on a wide range of issues for well over a year.
Overall, the proposed budget provides for $169,135,431 in spending for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2012, up by more than $5.9 million over the current $163,233,252. The rise amounts to a 3.6 percent increase in spending.
Revenues to support the budget would primarily come from property taxes (61 percent), followed by income taxes (28 percent), “other” revenues (8 percent) and pulling $3 million out of county “reserve” funds to cover the balance.
The budget also projects “impact aid” revenues from the Hollywood Casino on Perryville will pump nearly $3.4 million into county coffers, up from $3 million in the current budget year. But much of that increase–$266,667– will be offset by payments back to Penn National Gaming, operator of the casino, under an agreement by previous commissioners to offset unreimbursed area improvements made by the casino operators prior to opening.
The budget proposal freezes the county public schools at the current level of $67,156,014. The school system had requested $67.8 million. The proposed budget, although a “level funding,” actually amounts to a slight increase over the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” level, which requires the county to provide the same per-pupil funding as in the previous budget year.
The schools had projected a 111-student decline in enrollment, which would translate into about a $485,000 cut in county funds if only “maintenance of effort” level support were provided. However, recalculations set the decline at 110 pupils, so the proposed budget actually will give the schools $481,382 above the “maintenance” mandated level.
The proposed budget concurs with recommendations from a Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee that recently suggested level funding of the schools.
Overall, education—including Cecil College—accounts for 45 percent of county spending while public safety constitutes 20 percent.
The budget agrees with a proposal by Sheriff Barry Janney to take over security at the county Courthouse, using part-time armed officers with full law enforcement powers who would not receive benefits. But the Commissioners did not go along with Janney’s proposal to add five deputies to the force, including two for drug enforcement and prescription drug abuse investigations.
However, with the expanded county Detention Center due to open this fall, the budget provides $670,000 for 15 additional correctional officers to handle a larger prisoner population.
This year, the county conducted its first collective bargaining negotiations with unions representing Sheriff’s deputies and emergency services personnel. As a result of those talks, county officials said those public safety employees would get a 1 percent cost of living raise in the new budget year and a negotiated 1.5 percent raise in Fiscal 2014.
Other county employees, who have been without raises since Fiscal 2009, will also get a 1 percent cost of living boost in the new budget.
Some important policy decisions were put off in the budget. In recent months, there has been controversy over a proposal by Richard Brooks, the emergency services director, to create a basic ambulance service operated by county government at three locations in the county to supplement the basic services currently provided by volunteer fire companies. That proposal triggered an outpouring of protest from most of the county’s fire company leadership.
But the costly proposal was not included in the new budget and the citizens’ advisory panel had recommended against the expenditures, which could have cost over $6 million during a four-year period.
The new budget also does not resolve the issue of very slow ambulance response times in southern Cecil County. A $100,000 counter-proposal by the Cecilton and Hacks Point fire companies, to hire paid emergency medical staff to supplement volunteers, was not specifically included in the budget, according to participants in the county budget deliberations.
Still uncertain is the impact of a special session of the General Assembly that is expected to be convened in Annapolis in mid-May and that is expected to shift part of the costs of teacher pensions to the counties. County budget officials have been anticipating that a House version of the plan could dump over $2.4 million in costs on Cecil County in the new budget year.
The county’s proposed FY2013 budget creates a contingency plan for the pension shift, allocating $2.46 million in the general government expenses column to cover the costs the state is expected to dump on the county. In doing so, the county is setting aside money—much of which could be seen as coming out of the county’s reserve funds—to pay the tab if, and more likely when, the General Assembly approves the pension cost shift.
County Commissioners are still working on a separate capital improvement budget, covering construction and building projects.
There will be public hearings for citizens’ comments on the new budget on Tuesday, May 8, at 2 P.M. and 7 P.M. at the county administration building in Elkton.