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Cecil County Council OKs Budget, Last Minute Cuts to Cops, Schools, Libraries. Property Tax Rate Frozen

May 22, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

The Cecil County Council approved the first-ever county budget under the new Charter government late Tuesday night, after last-minute cuts of $689,000 primarily targeting law enforcement, public schools and libraries.

The Council adopted an operating budget for Fiscal 2014, which begins on 7/1/13, providing $173,532,772 to support county government and services. As part of the budget decisions, the Council accepted the proposal by County Executive Tari Moore to freeze the current property tax rate at .9907.

As a result, most property owners will see a drop in tax bills since state assessments of property values have been declining and all areas of the county have now been re-assessed under the state’s three-year cycle of property value reviews. (County property taxes are assessed based on the value of the property as established by a state agency.)

Moore’s budget boosted spending in a number of areas, especially county public schools, but she was able to hold the line on the tax rate by dipping into the county’s accumulated “fund balance’ or un-tapped reserve accounts, by $4 million. The Council’s actions Tuesday night will mean that the fund balance will take a slightly lesser hit to balance the overall operating budget.

Moore sat in the back of the meeting room in Elkton as the Council labored over the budget and when it was all over, she joked that she was “exhausted” from the compressed time schedule for action on the budget this year due to the requirements imposed by the county Charter. “I think we all learned a lot” in the process this year, she said. But she said she was “disappointed” in the Council’s decision to scale back user fees for sewer hook-ups that she said are needed to make such facilities self-supporting.

In addition to the operating budget, the Council approved a Capital Improvement budget, covering construction, repair and related costs for roads, bridges, etc, and cut about $923,000—mostly from a proposed artificial turf Calvert park playing field.

Separately, the Council also adopted user fees and related policies for so-called enterprise funds that support operations of county sewage treatment plants and the landfill. After a lengthy fight, the Council eventually went along with a $12,000 fee for hooking up new homes or businesses—instead of $16,100 sought by Moore—and in a compromise with the executive set up a plan to phase-in payments of those increased costs. In addition, the Council rejected a proposed increase, from $1 to $2, in fees paid by citizens who bring recyclable materials to the landfill.

Last Thursday, the Council conducted a lengthy straw-vote session to take the pulse of members on where they thought the budget should, or should not, be cut. At that time, a majority refused to make major cuts to schools, law enforcement or other key programs. [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/ ]

On Tuesday evening, the council did not re-visit several major issues—such as proceeding with “membrane” technology for the upgrade of the Seneca Point sewage treatment plant that boosts the project cost by $30 million—because the issue had been thoroughly aired and a majority supported the proposal on the earlier straw vote. Another key issue decided on the straw votes was approving Moore’s plan to provide two additional paramedics to the county’s Department of Emergency Services and a $1.5 million upgrade to computer and software technology to improve dispatch and response to calls for emergency services.

But on Tuesday, County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) came back with several new amendments proposing smaller cuts of $250,000 for the public schools; $125,000 in the Sheriff’s budget; cutting in half, by an estimated $169,417, a county employees’ sick-pay buyback program; and a last-second proposal to cut $100,000 from the county library system. The amendments were approved with some unusual voting alliances on the Council.

The sudden library fund cuts came after some members of the Cecil County Patriots, the local ‘tea party’ group, said in public comments at the Tuesday evening meeting that libraries were becoming obsolete since ‘most people’ research things on the Internet. (In many areas of the county, the libraries are the only source of free, and reliable, wi-fi or Internet services for local residents. Cecil Times has often been forced to rely on the Cecilton library’s Internet services to post news on this website when our expensive private Internet services fail, as they often do.)

The Council session lasted nearly four hours and was marked by some raised voices back and forth as well as a few gavel hits by Hodge to restore order. And Council Manager James Massey dragged out the process with slow, lengthy recitations of resolution numbers and line-by-line numerical allocations.

On the county schools, Moore had proposed boosting education spending by nearly $3.7 million above the bare-bones state-mandated “maintenance of effort” ( MOE) level—which is the same amount spent by the county in the previous budget year. That was a key decision, since the schools had been hammered for the past several years when the old “Three Amigos” majority ruled the County Commissioners’ board. The schools are also now forced to absorb over $3 million in annual and escalating costs for teacher pensions under a state legislative change.

During the earlier straw vote, a Council majority rejected going back to the MOE level. But Hodge shifted strategy, saying Tuesday morning that he wanted to cut $250,000 from the schools’ budget even though he realized “I know I won’t have any friends left in the public schools.” Hodge refused to say where the money should be cut, saying that would be up to the schools and the school board.

Tom Kappra, the public schools chief financial officer, told the Council that the proposed cuts would be taken out of “fund balance” or reserve funds for the Fiscal ’14 budget. But, he warned, that action would leave the schools vulnerable in the following budget year because they had already tapped about $2 million in fund balances to reduce their requested spending for the current budget year. He said the schools could be looking at a deficit of nearly $2 million in fiscal 2015.

Nevertheless, Hodge persisted in his schools cut quest and teamed up with his usual political foes, Councilors Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3), to cut the schools funds. Councilors Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) and Alan McCarthy (R-1) opposed the school cuts.

Hodge also refused to take responsibility or decision-making authority for how to implement another amendment to cut $125,000 in the Sheriff’s budget. (He initially sought deeper cuts but scaled them back after meeting resistance from other Councilors.) Hodge and a majority of the Council decided in the straw vote to support Sheriff Barry Janney’s original proposal—which was endorsed by Moore—to hire five new deputies to meet increased demand for services from county residents.

But on Tuesday, Hodge proposed a generic cut in Sheriff’s department funds, while saying he hoped the independently-elected Sheriff—who cannot be dictated to by the Council on how he allocates his resources—would find some other place to cut spending and would go ahead with the five new deputy hires. That motion was approved, 4-1, with Broomell opposing. She had previously supported hiring just 3 instead of 5 new deputies. Councilor Dunn previously opposed hiring any new deputies but on the Tuesday evening vote shifted to endorse the more modest $125,000 cut.

Meanwhile, the Council went back and forth over how to deal with user fees for sewage and landfill services. At one point, McCarthy thwarted moving ahead with the capital costs budget but eventually relented, yielding to Hodge’s demands. “You got your way.” McCarthy said. “I’d rather be eaten by the lions than nibbled to death by the ducks.”

McCarthy complained that past County Commissioners had not had the political courage to raise sewage user fees to meet the actual costs of providing services, with the result that other taxpayers who did not get such services were subsidizing the costs.

After many years of the old County Commissioners refusing to raise user fees to cover costs—with the result the other taxpayers who don’t benefit are forced to subsidize sewer services for actual users—Moore proposed a major price hike in user fees as well as costs to connect to sewer plants, to $16,100 per unit—with some businesses needing multiple ‘units’ to get their projects hooked into sewage services.

But Hodge worried that such a big boost—from $8,000 or $10,000 — to the new $16,100 fee would be too much for local residents or businesses to handle in one fell swoop. So he proposed cutting the increased “major facilities” hook-up fee to $12,000 and he also negotiated a deal with Moore to allow new users of sewer services to phase-in the hook-up costs so they wouldn’t have to pay it all up-front. Eventually, the Council agreed to go along with the phase-in of fees as well as the Hodge-proposed lesser hook-up costs.

It wasn’t raised at the Tuesday evening voting session but last week the Council agreed to support, on a 3-2 vote with Broomell and Dunn objecting, 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.

The council ignored nearly all of the recommendations made by a Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, which conducted an accelerated review of the County Executive’s budget, The panel, which included two failed candidates who challenged Moore in the GOP primary for County Executive, wanted to delete the five new deputies for the Sheriff’s department, rejected two new paramedics, opposed the ‘membrane’ technology for the Seneca Point sewage treatment plant, and wanted to slash public schools to the most basic, state-mandated ‘maintenance of effort” spending level. [ SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/05/cecil-county-budget-advisors-seek-cuts-in-cops-schools-seneca-point-cecilton-mayor-backs-sheriff-request-for-five-deputies/ ]

Dunn, who usually says nothing in Council meetings, several times justified his votes or proposals for budget cuts by saying that was what the advisory group said, without offering his own justifications for budget cut proposals.

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17 Responses to Cecil County Council OKs Budget, Last Minute Cuts to Cops, Schools, Libraries. Property Tax Rate Frozen

  1. Donna on May 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    “The Council ignored nearly all the recommendations made by the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee.”

    So what was the point in the Councilpeople’s requesting these VOLUNTEER committee members spend hours of their time at Tuesday meetings, spend time researching the issues, even making field trips to some locations (who were requesting funding) to gain further information, only to have their recommendations “ignored.”

    Seems to me that the Council already knew what it wanted to do, only going through the game of appointing volunteer taxpayers to make it look good. Why would a Council ignore the constituents who elected them? Do they have enough ego to think they “know better?” Maybe some just have more to lose if things just don’t go their way.

    If decisions are going to be made with the best interests of a few in mind, don’t waste taxpayers’ time pretending you value their recommendations. The politics being played in this County sickens me.

  2. John u on May 22, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    The comment by the Patriots is dumbfounding. But i guess they don’t go to libraries. I go into the Elkton library once a week and it is always busy. In addition many from Cecil County can’t afford the internet and go to the library to use the internet.

    Their comments about the library were self serving since they don’t like supporting things that are free, particularly free to people that can use the help.

  3. Read Between The Whines on May 22, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    I applaud the Council for working with the Executive’s budget and trying to reach a sensible compromise. I am very disappointed, however, at their last-minute huge cuts to the library budget. I am not sure why the misguided information presented by the “Patriots” justified $100,000 in cuts to a valued community institution.

    If anyone thinks the libraries in the county are not utilized, or are a thing of the past, they have clearly never BEEN to any Cecil County library. They are usually so busy you can’t find a parking spot!

  4. Jackie Gregory on May 23, 2013 at 2:00 am

    Yes, the libraries are well-equipped and offers many great programs, and they have continued to do so without a 9.3% increase in previous years. From a budgetary perspective, a request of an additional 9.3% in one year is incredible. Am I to believe that the libraries’ services will be compromised if they don’t get their extra 400k?

    They are planning many renovations. Are you suggesting that all of these must be done immediately and can’t be spread out over a period of 2 years? Then where would you cut?

    We all know that next year’s baseline budget will start with this year’s approved budget. So when we have another budget deficit next year, are you going to propose a tax increase to pay for all these services, or are you going to raid the reserves 6 million dollars? How long do you think that reserve is going to last? Did you all attend the G.W. Bush school of economics?

    When you develop a budget, the goal shouldn’t be to give everyone a little extra something so that they don’t get mad at you; it should be about making the budget balance with the revenue you have available. If you want to give the library a whopping 9.3% increase, that’s fine, but then you better find somewhere else to cut that same amount of $ then.

    I am seeing very little common sense on here; this shouldn’t be about politics. When a person runs a successful business, the budget is based on hard numbers, current revenues/expenses as well as projected future revenues/expenses, not on politics or relationships. And by the way, cutting a requested increase in a budget down to a smaller increase, does not constitute a budget cut. The $100k was taken from a budget increase, so there was no real cut to the library budget. Rather, the library will now receive a $300k increase in spending over last year, instead of $400k.

  5. Ron on May 23, 2013 at 5:22 am

    First of all John, nothing is for free. Working people who own property and pay taxes are paying for what you call “FREE.” Should all departments get a 9% increase in their budget?

    I suggest that you organize a fundraiser that will raise the $400,000 per year increase requested and give it to the library. If this library increase is this important to you, you should be eager to support this cause. Maybe, you can contribute $10 every time you visit the library. I don’t think that is asking too much. In fact, I find that honorable.

    What I don’t find honorable is seeing the county approve excessive increases on any department, not just the library, who want to expand government at this time. Thanks John.

    • Ron on May 24, 2013 at 9:52 am

      I’m not lobbying to do away with the libraries, just to hold them in check. I feel their services are adequate and the citizens will not suffer by holding them to last years budget numbers.

  6. madre19 on May 23, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    That Citizens Advisory Group does NOT reflect the average citizen in Cecil County. Their opinions/recommendations should have been ignored! Get a new panel of people that reflect the constituents. It’s no wonder people are choosing NOT to live in Cecil County. It’s time to move forward folks!

  7. Les on May 23, 2013 at 6:33 pm

    I’m receiving robo call after robo call from one tea party group or another, and have been since before the last election. Today’s was a plea to call my council and tell them I disapprove of the budget and all the tax increases, and that our County Exec and three of the councilmen (Hodge, McCarthy and I forget the third) claim to be tea party folks, but they really are not. How many tea party groups does one county need?

    Why do all these calls come from outside Cecil County? Are these among the thousands of groups the IRS is trying to control?

  8. Al Reasin on May 24, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Les,
    If the calls are specific about Cecil County and our County Council, I believe you will find out that the calls are from the Campaign for Liberty (C4L). They are not a TEA Party organization and follow the rules of Confrontational Politics. That policy is similar to Saul Alinsky’s far left tactics; all attack and no compromise.

    The local TEA Party organization, the Cecil County Patriots (CCP), try to work with county government, when possible, to promote smaller and less intrusive government. We may disagree with council members, but try to convince them of our views rather than attack them; only attacking is not productive for anyone.

    And yes, we have found some members of the council unreceptive to compromise and find that they attack us and have become aligned with C4L, but that is reality, and we have to work around them.

    • Bob Willick on June 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      No politicians are aligned with C4L. We are issued based , and hold all politicians to the same standards. If you don’t like our style of activism then don’t participate. It’s funny to see someone like Mr. Reasin make claims of groups being aligned with politicians when he kept a 20′ totem pole with Hodge/McCarthy/Moore signs up for 6 months after the election. You can go to his group’s website and see the leadership wearing Hodge/McCarthy/Moore t-shirts on election night – but I guess they are not aligned with anyone , right Mr. Reasin? Mr. Reasin – just because your group operates as a front for certain groups does not mean that C4L does.

      • Jackie Gregory on June 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm

        That’s a hefty accusation Mr. Willick. I hope you have some facts to back it up and aren’t in your usual C4L misinformation campaign mode. What groups are Mr. Reasin’s group a front for?

  9. concernedcitizen on May 24, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    I received that robo call as well. I followed their suggestion, hit 1 to connect with the county – and then I said thank you for passing the budget. Probably wouldn’t have done that without this call.

    However, I would have preferred to have a real person on the phone so I could have told them to never call me again. I went to their website and saw that they gave councilor Dunn the highest approval rating. That’s all I needed to know.

    • Bob Willick on June 8, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      Yes, currently Mr. Dunn has a 52% Liberty rating. If your child came home from school with a 52% in his/her math class , would you consider that an endorsement from their teacher? We rate the politicians on how they vote , not on personality – we could care less who is on top. Vote to secure liberties and advocate for small government and your score goes up, do the opposite and your score goes down. Campaign for Liberty is an issue based group , we are not part of any “team”.

      • concernedcitizen on June 9, 2013 at 8:13 am

        “We rate the politicians on how they vote , not on personality.”
        So do I – and your point is??
        “we are not part of any “team”
        Neither am I.
        Wait, except, I am not part of your ‘team’ – see above.

  10. Janet H on May 29, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    It’s all politics in this county. It’s who is friends with who and who can do what for who to get re-elected. Instead of doing what is right for the tax paying citizens of this county, it good old boys politics as usual. Who can do what for me and some county government people have an axe to grind with a lot of groups and individuals. It’s obvious by who and what they support.

  11. Ken Wiggins on May 29, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    A few facts about our public library system: About half of all Cecil residents hold an active library card. They have used it for one million checkouts per year during a half million collective visits. This year there were 5,830 summer reading participants, and librarians fielded almost 100,000 reference questions.

    Our library system is the gem of the County and it represents a cost to the citizens of 2.5% of the County budget. The public library hosts public meetings, offers job search services, and small business advice. It is pretty obvious that this is among the most useful and important institutions in the County and is easily the best loved part of County government.

    Only fans of “Ceciltucky” would vote to hold back its success in serving our literate citizens.

    • SchoolMarm on June 9, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      I agree with Mr. Wiggins. A handful of “squeaky wheel” Tea Party folks influenced the entire Council. It seems from what I hear and read that the majority of Cecil County citizens do NOT mind their tax monies being used to fund the library at the level proposed by the Executive.

      Thus, it seems the majority of those who support the library must adopt the strategy of making their views known to the Council, day in and day out, at every opportunity (and not just at budget hearings which obviously are not really important to these elected people who make decisions at the last minute based on some vague notion of political pressure).

      The library is not obsolete no matter what one person thinks. Let us hope that democracy and the run of the majority are not likewise obsolete in Cecil County.

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--Alan McCarthy