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