Cecil County Budget Post-Mortem: Politics, Policy, Process (or the Good, Bad, and Ugly)
The Cecil County Council recently adopted the first budget under the new Charter form of government in a rocky, often bumbling process that left many citizens – and even some Council members–wondering what was going on when the final votes were taken. It was indeed a learning process, as County Executive Tari Moore and several Council members have conceded, but it didn’t have to be quite so messy.
“I was so disappointed in that budget process I could scream,” Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) said. “It was a mess.”
And even County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5), who presided over the process and took fellow Council members and citizens by surprise with some last-minute budget cuts, conceded the Council “coulda, shoulda, woulda done better.”
The Council got tied up in procedural knots over how, and when, to handle the multiple resolutions to implement the various components of the budget—operating budget, capital budget, landfill funds, sewage funds—and yielded to insistence by Winston Robinson, the county’s Director of Finance, on how to proceed. As a result, citizens attending the nearly four-hour evening session on 5/21/13 were treated to lengthy recitations of line-by-line spending allocations as proposed in the executive’s budget, then proposed Council cuts, then net figures for each item. Strong coffee should have been served to keep everyone awake.
[SEE Cecil Times report on final budget adoption here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/05/cecil-county-council-oks-budget-last-minutre-cuts-to-cops-schools-libraries-property-tax-rate-frozen/ ]
Robinson did a strong, solid job in explaining, and defending, Moore’s budget proposals during the pre-voting phase of worksessions on the budget. But when it came down to the home stretch, his sharpened accountant’s pencil didn’t take into account the politics of the budget for the Council and members’ needs to convey decisions and the rationale for them clearly to the public.
The internal politics of the Council came into play on many decisions made during a ‘straw vote’ the preceding Thursday, when a solid 3-vote majority— Hodge, McCarthy and Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2)– refused to make major cuts in schools, public safety or public works spending. [SEE Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/05/cecil-county-council-backs-most-of-county-execs-budget-rejects-cuts-to-cops-schools-ems-but-some-sewer-fees-uncertain/ ]
But Hodge came back on Tuesday, just hours before the final budget vote, with smaller cuts in schools ($250,000), the Sheriff’s Department ($125,000) and—just minutes before the evening vote—a sudden $100,000 cut in the county public library budget. There were no substantive rationales or explanations of why such amounts were proposed or where in the departmental budgets the cuts should be made. So it looked like numbers were being pulled from the air.
“I’m not going to cry over spilled milk,” Sheriff Barry Janney told Cecil Times. Moore’s budget included provisions for hiring five new deputies, and the way her budget was crafted would have allowed Janney to hire experienced, veteran law enforcement officers from other areas effective July 1. Janney said he is still committed to hiring five additional deputies but the last-minute cut by Hodge means that he will have to delay hiring throughout the year to bring them on board. “It may take us four or five months” to begin bringing some experienced deputies on staff, Janney said. “We’ll do the best with what we got.”
Hodge conceded in an interview with Cecil Times that there had been no advance discussions among Council members about his proposed library cut and said he decided to offer the other spending reduction plans on Tuesday because “I was receiving a lot of comments from people saying ‘you didn’t do enough’ “ to reduce spending.
“I was hoping that the other members of the Council would come forward” with other proposals after the straw vote session, he said, but they did not. Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) did propose amendments making major cuts in spending during the straw vote session but did not win a majority vote and even her usual ally Councilor Michael Dunn (R-3) abandoned her on several votes.
Sources said that Hodge passed a note during the final Tuesday evening budget meeting saying he wanted to “whack” the library budget, after several members of the Cecil County Patriots, the local tea party organization, spoke out during a public comment session criticizing the County Executive’s proposed 5 percent increase in the library budget. (Much of the increase was to provide for improvements at the main Elkton library and some local branches.)
Denise Davis, director of the county library system, took an optimistic tone in post-budget comments to Cecil Times, saying that although “library staff were surprised by the Council’s decision” to cut the budget, the libraries still ended up with a 2.7 percent increase that she said amounted to “a vote of confidence” in the library system’s work to assist ever-increasing numbers of patrons with new programs and services. The library is “more committed than ever to proving that every dollar is a wise investment,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Patriots group that questioned the library budget has been an active citizen presence at Council meetings, and previously at County Commissioner sessions, with most members offering constructive comments and suggestions on ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs in county government programs. Most members have been polite, while insistent, and have been willing to work with county officials on issues. Members of the Patriots were also strong supporters and volunteers for Moore, Hodge and McCarthy in their 2012 election campaigns.
But the Patriots have recently been under attack by area groups associated with the Campaign for Liberty (C4L), a conservative political group that has named Ted Patterson as its state co-coordinator. Patterson, a failed candidate for a state delegate seat from Cecil County, is an anti-government activist who has taken a scorched earth approach in past writings attacking public schools, Moore and members of the Cecil County Council.
During the recent budget review, many local residents received robocalls linked to the group and attacking the budget, the Council and Moore and Hodge in particular. The Cecil County branch of C4L is also running a postcard campaign that calls Moore, Hodge, McCarthy and Bowlsbey the “tax ‘n’ spend team.” The cards declare that “Your failure to stem the tide of growing government will not be forgotten.” And in various social media exchanges, members of the Patriots and C4L groups have criticized one another and their different approaches to the county government and the budget process.
By offering his last minute cuts, Hodge could be seen as ‘taking one for the team’—responding to the Patriots’ concerns and giving them some bragging rights for achieving spending reductions—while also insulating Moore and her budget from rubber-stamp accusations if the Council did not make any significant changes.
But Hodge was free-lancing on his insistence that increased county sewage hook-up fees proposed by Moore be scaled back from $16,100 to $12,000. He voiced concerns about the impact on businesses that might be unwilling to locate in the county if they had to pay such significant fees up-front before opening their enterprises. Moore was not pleased by the reduction, although she worked out a compromise with Hodge to allow a phased-in financing of the more modest fee boost.
Commenting after the budget adoption, Moore said, “We still have work to do to make sure our user rates are fair and adequately resource the services” provided by the so-called ‘enterprise funds’ that are supposed to collect adequate fees from users of the services so that other taxpayers who do not benefit from sewage services are not forced to pay part of their costs. Moore also sought, and received, funds in her budget to study the possible creation of a county-wide sewer authority to, as she put it, “take the politics out” of future decisions on setting rates and user fees.
At a Tuesday (5/28/13) morning worksession, Hodge opened the door to discussion of the recently completed budget considerations by the Council and freely admitted it was far from a perfect process. “We, the Council, can make some comments about the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the process, Hodge said, so as to “make it better” in the future.
“The last minute amendments put a wrench into the process,” said Broomell, who pointed out that Councilors had been told to put their spending cuts in writing before the straw vote session at which major decisions on the budget were made. Broomell complied with that directive and offered multiple amendments for consideration at that session. She said there should be a “deadline” for submitting amendments in the future so that citizens know in advance what is on the table.
Hodge objected to putting a deadline on amendments and Bowlsbey said the Council needed leeway to respond to the concerns raised by citizens.
McCarthy ticked off a list of a half-dozen concerns about the budget process and said that he thought he had a “good feeling” about where the Council was heading after the preceding Thursday straw vote session, but the last-minute Hodge amendments on Tuesday (5/21/13) “caught me completely off guard.”
McCarthy suggested that the Council should have a ‘line-item veto” of individual spending items in the budget submitted by the County Executive so that the intent of the Council would be clear to citizens and department heads alike.
Bowlsbey, who headed the Charter advisory committee that wrote the Charter approved by county voters in 2010, said that “we can do that” under the Charter rules. But Hodge said department heads still had authority to shift around funds in their budget and “wiggle around” a specific Council directive on how to spend money.
However, Hodge did not specify in any of his budget cut proposals where cuts should be made in individual departmental budgets and as such he did not take responsibility for what services would be reduced as a result of the budget cuts. He said repeatedly that he was not an “expert” in individual departmental operations and that department heads were best qualified to figure out where to make the cuts within their overall budget.
“We have the ability to tell them what to eliminate and we did not,” said Bowlsbey.
There’s an old saying that you don’t want to see what goes into making sausages, or laws. In the case of the recent Cecil County budget, the sausage-making process might have been cleaner.