Citizens Weigh in on Cecil County Budget; Urge School, Ambulance Funds
Cecil Countyâ€™s proposed budget drew mostly polite comments and gratitude from representatives of programs that were frozen but not cut in the new Fiscal 2013 budget but some supporters of the public schools and county emergency services workers forcefully disagreed with Commissionersâ€™ priorities.
The Cecil County Commissioners 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 keep property taxes at the â€śconstant yieldâ€ť rate. However, since overall revenues are down due to the recession and declining property values, just to bring in the same amount of revenues as this year, the property tax rate will increase by five-cents, 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 over $2.4 million of that figure is actually a contingency plan for the anticipated state shift of teacher pension costs to the county.
Dr. Dâ€™Ette Devine, the county Superintendent of Schools, told county commissioners at a public hearing on the budget Tuesday afternoon that the decision to provide flat or â€ślevelâ€ť funding of the schools, at the same $67.1 million as in the current year, will give a slight cushion over the bare minimum of spending required by the state.
The state â€śmaintenance of effortâ€ť mandate requires the county to provide the same per-pupil funding as in the previous budget year. A 110-student decline in enrollment in the new budget year means the countyâ€™s decision to freeze the budget will give the schools $481,382 over the â€śmaintenance of effortâ€ť mandate level.
Dr. Devine said the schools would use the funds to help train teachers and staff to comply with new â€ścommon core curriculumâ€ť mandates being set by the state. She said she hoped an improving economy would allow commissioners to â€śtake another lookâ€ť at capital and building needs, especially the need to begin planning for rebuilding Perryville elementary school. She also cited the need to replace dilapidated athletic field bleachers at North East High School.
An Elkton parent, Adam Fleischhacker, a faculty member at the University of Delaware, made an impassioned plea to increase funds for the public schools to ensure enrichment classes, vocational education and especially better instruction and opportunities at the middle school and high school level.
The parent of two children attending Elk Neck elementary, he praised that school but said he and other parents feared they would have to move or send their children to private school for the higher grades because there was an atmosphere â€śwhere mediocrity prevails.â€ť
Patrice Burchett, president of the local union representing county emergency services employees, took the County Commissioners to task for not including provisions in the budget to address a serious problem with slow response times for emergency ambulance services.
â€śI am astounded,â€ť she said, that the commissioners have not made allocations in the budget to improve ambulance services despite warnings over the past year that the situation is serious and could result in loss of lives.
â€śThe almighty dollar is not worth any human life,â€ť Burchett said.
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 countyâ€™s fire company leadership.
But the costly proposal was not included in the new budget and the citizensâ€™ 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, also was not specifically included in the budget.
However, county commissioners have held several closed-door meetings with representatives of the fire companies to discuss emergency services and what some say is dissatisfaction with Brooksâ€™ leadership on the issue.
County Commissioners are scheduled to vote at 2 p.m. on May 22 on the proposed budget, as well as a separate capital improvement plan covering construction, maintenance and repair projects.
Overall, the proposed Cecil County 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. But much of that rise is attributable to the county setting aside more than $2.4 million to cover the anticipated costs of the state beginning to shift teacher pension expenses from the state to the county government.