Cecil County Council Backs Most of County Exec’s Budget; Rejects Cuts to Cops, Schools, EMS– But Some Sewer Fees Uncertain

May 17, 2013

The Cecil County Council voted late Thursday afternoon to support most of County Executive Tari Moore’s Fiscal 2014 budget proposal, repeatedly rejecting proposals by Councilors Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn to (R-3) to slash money for county public schools, public safety and infrastructure projects.

The votes showed the intentions of the majority of the Council on a wide range of budget issues but are not yet final or binding. The Council must adopt a county budget in a formal legislative session on Tuesday 5/21/13, and some of the amendments voted down on Thursday could be presented again. But on most points, the intent of the majority was clear and few if any changes are expected.

But there was still one major issue left open: how to ease the impact of a proposed huge boost in “major facility fees” for sewage services—the charges assessed to new business customers seeking to hook-up to the county’s sewage treatment plants. The fees are currently set at $10,000 per unit (some businesses require many ‘units’ to meet their needs) but Moore proposed boosting the fee to $16,100. Pending a solution on how to phase-in the big increases, the Council indicated it would not endorse such a large fee hike effective in Fiscal 2014, which begins 7/1/13.

Most tallies came on a 3-2 vote, with Council President Robert Hodge (R-5), Vice President Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) voting together to oppose the spending cuts endorsed by Broomell and Dunn. Hodge brought a list of possible cuts to the meeting as possible lesser reduction alternatives but he didn’t offer most of them when the Broomell-Dunn proposals were defeated.

The key decisions made by the Council Thursday were:

–Endorsement of the hiring of five additional Sheriff’s deputies, after rejecting a Dunn motion to delete all five positions. A Broomell motion to limit the new hires to three deputies died without getting a second supporter to bring it to a vote.

–Endorsement of the Executive’s budget proposal for the county’s public schools, which includes $3.6 million above the bare minimum, state-mandated “maintenance of effort” level of county funding. The Council rejected a motion by Dunn to cut the schools back to the maintenance of effort level of county aid. Broomell agreed with Dunn but the other three Councilors refused to go along.

“It’s foolish,” Bowlsbey said, “to look at it as just an expense.” She said quality education “is an investment in our future.”

–Support for hiring two additional paramedics for the three county government operated “advanced life support” ambulance stations to handle rising call volumes. A Dunn motion to delete the positions failed for lack of a second.

–Endorsement of $1.5 million in the capital improvement budget to acquire up to date software and computers to upgrade an eight-year old dispatch system that will serve county police, fire and ambulance services, including volunteer fire companies’ services.

(Emergency Services Director Richard Brooks gave a detailed presentation on the need for the new system and explained how it would improve dispatch of emergency personnel and vehicles. Broomell arrived late to the meeting and did not hear the presentation, but she offered her motion to delete the funds for the new system, saying “It is not necessary.” Her motion died for lack of a second.)

–Refusal to hire a “county auditor” reporting to the County Council, a new job position long advocated by Broomell to be a watchdog on the executive branch and county departments. Instead, the Council decided, on a motion by McCarthy, to set aside $25,000 for the council to hire independent experts and consultants on an as-needed basis to advise the Council on complex issues.

(Moore had included $70,000 for hiring an auditor in her budget, saying at the time that she did not want to intrude on the Council’s decision-making process and it would be up to the members to decide for themselves if they wanted to hire a designated full-time auditor.)

–Acceptance—due to a 2-2- tie vote—of Moore’s proposal to proceed with construction of safety and roadway improvements leading to a planned reconstruction of the Old Elk Neck Bridge in North East. Hodge recused himself since he owns property in the area. When the rest of the Council deadlocked 2-2, Broomell’s motion to delete $400,000 from the budget for the road improvements failed, with the result that Moore’s budget proposal still stands.

–Endorsement of a “membrane” technology to upgrade the Seneca Point sewage treatment plant, to meet state environmental mandates as well as enable the plant to expand in the future on the same site to meet potential future customer demand. Broomell has battled the ‘membrane’ technology because it will add $30 million to the cost of the project in the long-term. Those costs would be borne by “enterprise funds” supported by user fees that would be used to pay back bonds issued by the county or state loan funds.

“It’s just a very stupid decision by this board,” Broomell declared, adding on yet the latest of her many attacks on the county’s Director of Public Works, Scott Flanigan, whom she accused of having “misled” the council. Hitting his gavel, Hodge said, “Stop it.”

–Cutback of a proposed $951,000 allocation for an artificial turf playing field and parking lot at the Calvert park to $50,000 for engineering studies for options to enhance the field—deferring decisions on whether natural or artificial turf would ultimately be installed on the uneven playing surfaces at the site.

Compared to several other recent Council meetings, the tone of Thursday afternoon’s session was mostly civil. (Cecil Times was the only local media outlet present for the more than three-hour late afternoon meeting.) But Broomell got in some digs, rhetorical flourishes and accusations against fellow Councilors—and the Cecil County Patriots tea-party group.

During discussion of proposed cuts in the education budget, Broomell said with a giggle, “Where are the Patriots?” The group initially supported Broomell’s candidacy for County Commissioner in 2010, but has become strongly critical of her actions and demeanor since taking office.

Then, in discussion of a Moore-proposed $28,000 study of possible creation of a county Sewer Authority, Broomell asserted there were “two on this board who have a number of assets that could benefit” from the study.

“Point of order,” declared Bowlsbey, suggesting the personal attacks were out of order on a budget motion.

“Maybe we should go back to port-a-potties,” said McCarthy.

Moore told Cecil Times after presenting her budget that the study of a possible Sewer Authority was designed to evaluate steps to “take out the politics” from decisions on user fees to make sure that such “enterprise funds” are financially solvent without forcing other taxpayers who are not served by such facilities to pay part of their costs. [SEE Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/03/cecil-county-exec-asks-to-study-county-watersewer-authority/ ] The Council decided Thursday to proceed with the study on a 3-2 vote, with Broomell and Dunn opposed.

The then ‘Three Amigos’ majority of the old Board of Commissioners, including Broomell and Dunn, refused in the past two years to raise sewer fees to cover actual costs, a decision that forced other county taxpayers to absorb some of the operating costs of sewage treatment services they did not receive. Broomell said the study should be rejected because it “wasn’t part of Tari Moore’s platform when she was running for election.” Moore resoundingly defeated Broomell in the 2012 Republican primary for County Executive.

In a related action, the new County Council decided Thursday, on a 3-2 vote with Broomell and Dunn objecting, to endorse Moore’s budget proposal to boost basic sewer usage fees to bring them into alignment with actual costs. So metered sewer bills would face a 49-cent increase from $8.44 for each 1,000 gallons, to $8.93. Non-metered bills would rise from $128 a quarter of the year to $133.95.

And in yet another sewage-related issue, Hodge refused to accept a large, immediate boost in “major facility” hook-up fees proposed by Moore, saying it would discourage new business from locating in the county. He said that options should be explored to phase-in up-front costs for new employers to obtain sewage services, especially in the growth corridor area—which is between I-95 and Route 40.

Jumping up the costs from the current $10,000 per unit currently paid to $16,100 under the new budget was too much, too soon, according to Hodge. He mustered a majority vote to withhold Council approval for the immediate hook-up fee increase.

Hodge said he wanted to work with Flanigan, who he said is already studying ways to phase-in the costs so as to ease the burden on new businesses.

But Winston Robinson, the new county Director of Finance, took a hard-line, saying that not fully funding the hook-up fee increase would violate county Charter requirements for balancing costs and expenses. He did not specify how the previous Commissioners’ refusal to match costs with user fees was justifiable, but he added, “Charter requires you to get the job done by the end of May.”

“Then find a way to balance it,” Hodge responded—suggesting that DPW might have to find other spending cuts to offset the costs.

Flanigan took a conciliatory tone, saying he would work with all parties to come up with a mutually acceptable solution.

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