Cecil County Budget: Advisors Seek Cuts in Cops, Schools, Seneca Point; Cecilton Mayor Backs Sheriff Request for Five Deputies
A citizensâ budget advisory panel, which spent just a few weeks listening to presentations on the countyâs needs and the County Executiveâs proposed budget, on Tuesday suggested a budget slashing agenda with major cuts in county schools, public safety and infrastructure programs.
The recommendations by the group– which included multiple members with anti-government spending agendas including two failed political candidates for county executive in the last electionâproposed major cuts but did not provide detailed rationales for the proposals in their 1 Â˝ page report.
The groupâs proposals are unlikely to gain much traction during the County Councilâs consideration of the County Executiveâs budget, and discussions on Tuesday indicated that the only Council member who agreed with most of the panelâs suggestions was Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4.) A broad-based advisory panel that spent many more months reviewing budget policies last year presented a more detailed and explanatory report but most of the proposals still were not adopted by the then-Commissioners.
The budged proposed in March by County Executive Tari Moore provided for a freeze on county property tax rates, while providing five new deputies to the Sheriffâs department and a modest increase to the countyâs public schools. Her budget primarily relied on tapping $4 million from county reserve funds which have grown significantly in recent years.
So it was somewhat surprising that the advisory panel called for such major cuts in county programs, since the Executive had not proposed tax increases to support her program priorities.
Nevertheless, the budget advisory panel proposed:
–$5.7 million in cuts to Cecil County Public Schools, including providing the bare-bones State-mandated minimum âmaintenance of effortâ funding level and putting off construction of the proposed Perryville school field house.
–Rejection of the Sheriffâs Department request for five new deputies, to boost road patrols to meet increased citizensâ calls for service, including five new police cars to serve the additional staff. The panel did not address rising crime problems but instead said that a âbar code softwareâ used by administrative support staff would release patrol officers from paperwork chores so they could spend more time on the streets. The panel claimed rejecting the five deputy slots would save $565,000. The panel also said deputiesâ ability to take home patrol cars should be curtailed.
–Rejection of county Public Works Director Scott Flaniganâs longstanding recommendations, approved by past county legislative panels, to proceed with a âmembraneâ technology to upgrade the Seneca Point sewage treatment plan that is under a state mandate to reduce pollution. Opposition to the Seneca Point project as proposed by Flaniganâexpected to cost $30 million in county funds on top of a nearly $11 million state grantâhas been a top priority of Councilor Broomell.
–Emergency Medical ServicesâNo increases, such as the Emergency Services Directorâs request for two new paramedic employees. The county government provides, and pays for, three advanced life support (ALS) ambulance stations in the county staffed by paramedics who are county employees. Volunteer fire companies provide basic life support (BLS) ambulance services throughout the county. The budget panelâs comments appeared to be unaware of the differences between the types of emergency ambulance services that provide care at different levels of medical needs. The budget panel simply said that volunteer fire companies could handle needed ambulance services.
The panel also demanded that Cecil College not be allowed to proceed with a $158,000 building renovation project and opposed preliminary work on a future turf field under the parks and recreation department.
The Seneca Point opposition drew the most commentary from County Council members, with Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) asking panel members if they had been present for, or reviewed audio and video tapes, of a recent lengthy presentation to the Council by Flanigan on the issue. Members responded that they had not been present but some members had reviewed materials from the presentation.
Former county Treasurer Bill Feehley, a member of the budget advisory panel, said that the project was too costly at this time, and that a cheaper technology that would be fully funded by a state grant could meet the current environmental mandates. He, as did Broomell, questioned projections of population and economic development growth suggesting that Seneca Point needed to have the ability to expand for future needs in the next decade or less.
âWe donât know,â Feehley said, if the âgrowth corridorâ preferred by potential business or industrial employers will be in the area served by Seneca Point or âin Rising Sun or down in Cecilton.â The countyâs designated growth corridor, between I-95 and Route 40, is largely in the Seneca Point service area.
âSo you are all betting the county isnât going to grow that much,â observed Councilor Hodge.
Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) said he was concerned that without the ability to expand future capacity, the county may have âmissed opportunitiesâ for economic development and job creation. He also pointed out that the âmembraneâ technology, endorsed by Flanigan in a âpowerful presentationâ to the Council, would allow future expansion on the same land location.
But McCarthy said that the cheaper stop-gap approach favored by Broomell and the budget panel would require creation of a new plant at another site, further raising costs in the future. âDid you evaluate all these different options,â McCarthy wondered.
Meanwhile, at Tuesdayâs morning worksession, Cecilton Mayor Joseph Zang addressed the County Council to support Sheriff Barry Janneyâs request for five additional deputies in the new budget. He said the countyâs southernmost town has had rising crime problems since the Sheriff was forced last fall, due to rising numbers of countywide calls for assistance, to curtail assignment of deputies to a street-level crime task force that had been effective against drug-dealing in the Cecilton area.
âIâm pleading with you,â Zang said, to avoid cuts to the countyâs public safety budget. The mayor pointed out that the town does not have its own police force and relies on the Sheriff and State Police.
âI want to see how heâs going to use them,â Broomell said of the requested deputies. She went on at length about how Harford Countyâs Sheriff uses many âresourcesâ and has a âmaster planâ for policing priorities. She didnât mention that Harford has a much larger population and much larger public safety budget.
Zang said that in conversations with Janney, he was assured by the Sheriff that âwith additional manpower, heâd be able to put the street-level crime unit in play.â
In an interview with Cecil Times, Janney said âthe volume of calls has risen dramaticallyâ and he has had to deploy deputies to respond to citizensâ calls for help as a top priority. He noted he had not received approval for additional deputies in the past four years from the County Commissioners despite the rising demand for police services.
He said he wanted to assign one new deputy to each of five patrol groups to âget things under controlâ and that would ultimately allow deployment of officers to street-level crime fighting.
Janney noted that the budget advisory panel apparently had not researched current collective bargaining agreements, which specify policies for take-home cars for deputies and could not be altered during the two-year duration of the current agreement.
Janney said he was hopeful that a majority of the Council would support the County Executiveâs proposal for five new deputies. But if not, âIâll just have to do the best I can with what Iâve got.â