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Cecil County Budget Post-Mortem: Politics, Policy, Process (or the Good, Bad, and Ugly)

May 29, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

NEWS ANALYSIS

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.

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8 Responses to Cecil County Budget Post-Mortem: Politics, Policy, Process (or the Good, Bad, and Ugly)

  1. Too Much Government on May 29, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    One’s true colors always come out at budget time. Hodge again shooting from the hip with no basis for his decision. This is an individual who just cannot take a stand and hold to it.

    Short of putting him in the same category as Dunn and Broomell, he is the most egregious, egotistic, subjective member within the county council. He in all probability thinks that this type of personality/behavior will make him look good. I’m certainly not impressed by his administrative and managerial abilities.

  2. Jackie Gregory on May 29, 2013 at 11:39 pm

    The proposed library budget was actually a 9.3% increase over last year’s budget, not 5% as stated in the article. http://www.ccgov.org/uploads/Budget/2014ProposedBudget03012013.pdf (page 15). This was a much greater increase than almost all other departments, so that is why I included the library in my comments during the council meeting. The council still voted to give them an almost 7% increase over last year’s budget, which still is a more generous increase than most departments received. My concern is that this budget uses a significant portion of our reserve fund, which might seem insignificant this year, but will have negative consequences in future years. Budgets almost never decrease from one year to the next, so next year we will be in a position of either raising taxes to pay for the increased spending or taking from our reserves again, which will result in their depletion in a few years.

    “Campaign for Liberty” has very little credibility on the budget issue for a few reasons. First, the organization sends out information that has a grain of truth mixed with half truths and misinformation. Second, C4L criticizes certain elected officials regardless of what they do, even when they act in alignment with conservative/liberty-oriented principles. Third, their leadership never even bothered to show up and speak during any part of the budget process; it seems they only know how to complain from behind a computer. Finally, their leader, Ted Patterson, supported Pipkin’s and O’Malley’s teacher pension cost shift to the counties (another unfunded mandate). This year alone, that represented over a 3 million dollar increase to our county budget.

    • greg meyer on June 10, 2013 at 3:09 pm

      interesting, mixed truths and information. wow. so are you saying we have no right to criticizes! wow, what a statist attitude. a lot of us do work for a living ,me myself in Baltimore.and long hours also. when we do showing up, do they listen to us like on s236 bill [when bob willick pointed out that only broomwell showed up that was not praise, that was a fact] and what about the stuff that is going on in port deposit also what about the toll raise,the bike path,the gun bill and so on.so it gets to the point of why even bother. their mind is already made up. we shall see how this common core issue will go.also as one who attends our meetings. you should know better to say stuff like this.so to say we only know how to complain behind the computer is very misleading! we are growing in numbers in many counties and in cecil too. must be doing something right. and we are taking action. the gun rally in rising sun is an example. yet the biggest complainers about campaign for liberty did not show up! glad that at lease al did. and we were glad. I WAS. look how liberty pac growing also. the amount of information that is presented at “Campaign for Liberty” meetings and liberty pac meetings is far more valueable then at these council meetings. you get more educated. then inform the people so when election time comes around we then will remember. you do have the rights to criticizes ted Patterson but at the same time you get up set when campaign for liberty criticizes its a different ball game. why!

      • Donna Caudell on June 11, 2013 at 8:24 am

        Everyone has a right to criticize but unless people actually get involved, criticism is, in my opinion, the lazy approach. Anyone can complain and criticize. Most of us do work long hours, have kids to raise, etc. It’s not an easy balance to get involved and go to meetings, etc., (ask our families and our spouses) but we do it and we need more “boots” on the ground.

        As far as SB236, it was Broomell, Dunn and Mullin that wanted more property in Tier 4, the more restrictive Tier. (That was why so many people criticized Willick for his comment — it was obvious he didn’t know the history/background, yet Broomell shows up and he gives her credit?) Give me a break.

        It was the Cecil Business Leaders, the Farmers, the Patriots, the citizens and then Commissioner Moore and Hodge that didn’t want more [land] in Tier 4 so we sent out letters, and the people showed up, with their tractors and packed the [county] building.

        Broomell backtracked and Dunn was silent as usual. What ended up happening in the end was County Executive Moore submitted the least restrictive map. I believe that was the best decision to protect property rights. But to answer your question about SB236, yes, 2 of the commissioners did listen.

      • Donna Caudell on June 11, 2013 at 8:30 am

        Greg,
        To address your question about Ted Patterson: Ted is C4L’s Maryland State Coordinator and is promoting Agenda 21! Don’t you think that’s just a little hypocritical for C4L to criticize others? Where’s the emails and robo calls demanding his resignation? Ever hear of “practice what you preach?”

      • Jackie Gregory on June 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm

        Greg,
        I have never said you have no right to criticize. I do not get upset when C4L criticizes, but when the criticism is based on partial or incorrect information, then I do get a bit upset, and that is the point I made.

        Remember the tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf?” When you criticize even when our elected officials do the right thing or on issues that your own leadership has been on the wrong side of, then you lose credibility. I have been on the front lines criticizing when necessary, and I also take the time to research and understand the issues, and make sure that when we put out information it can be documented and is based in fact. I evaluate the facts against Constitutional, limited gov’t, and free-market principles.

        We don’t throw stuff out there to get an emotional response, facts be damned. We have enough real problems to deal with, so we don’t need to manufacture any. You really need to educate yourself on the issues. And when members of our local government take action to protect property rights and the 2nd amendment, you should encourage them.

        Attending Liberty PAC meetings, C4L meetings, and CCP meetings is absolutely worthless unless you use the education you are receiving. There is no excuse not to show up for council meetings; there are both morning and evening sessions. You can show up at Citizen’s Corner and ask questions of the council members. What we do does take a lot of time and work.

        You should be more upset/critical about the Ted Patterson issue than me. He is the leader of your group, not mine. If C4L had dealt with him as they should have, then Patterson would not be an issue, but they didn’t. The leadership of C4L made excuses, covered for him, and tried to hide it from other members of their group.

  3. Donna Caudell on May 30, 2013 at 7:54 am

    In my opinion, no one on that council looked at the budget line by line. When you cut the sheriff’s funding– yet keep funding for the Rolling Mill Bridge– it kinda makes you wonder where our priorities are. Although the budget process is over for this year, I would hope that the council can still “defund” some of the “special interest” projects, mainly the Rolling Mill Bridge that Broomell, Dunn and the other [past] Amigo voted for last year.

    I was glad to see the $250,000 cut out of the school budget. Taxpayers should NOT be funding students going to camp for the week! And the teacher pensions being dumped on the county is killing us. The Patriots have fought this from Day 1 when Senator E.J. Pipkin was trying to dump this on us. We took at day off of work to go to Annapolis and when we got there he “pulled the bill” – interesting.

    Hodge and Moore wanted to send a letter opposing this but [Mullin], Broomell and Dunn refused. Broomell said, “I don’t think we should do anything. Let it run its course.” And Dunn said, “I tend to agree; Cecil County isn’t affected.” – Really?

    There was also the sabotage of the Artesian deal by [Mullin], Broomell and Dunn that cost the county millions; oh and don’t forget the “emergency” meeting called by [Mullin], Dunn and Broomell where they quickly voted to give their friends “Buddies for Life” over 2 million dollars for “dog” control (cats not included). What a racket!

    I was very disappointed that only the Patriots showed up and voiced their opposition to this budget. Citizens, please get involved. Those that don’t have no right to complain. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way it is. Let this be a lesson for all — anyone that even thinks that you can elect any politician and then sit on your couch and complain/send emails/robocalls without getting actively involved, is not only lazy but is living in la la land.

    • Mike R on June 1, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Donna, I totally agree with you that conscientious people in this county need to get more involved; but I do also understand their trepidation since so many that spoke up against many of the decisions made by the three amigos encountered some type of retribution. Until all the bullies (Dunn, Broomell, Hodge) are out of office,this is not going to change. I’m not so sure that Moore is any better.

      Take the animal control contract– they have been in breach of contract so many times and yet, no one has the “balls” to cancel the contract and save a boat load of money.

      We need leaders that are for the people of this county not for their own personal gain. Can’t wait till 2014, we can at least try to get rid of Dunn and Broomell and hopefully Hodge in 2016. Till then we will need to rely on Cecil Times to tell us the truth.

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IT'S BEEN AN HONOR TO SERVE CECIL COUNTY

My sincere thanks to all who voted for me and supported our campaign to continue serving all of Cecil County

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