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Cecil County Council: Good News, No News and the Bad News Bears

September 25, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

The Cecil County Council had some good news from the county library, no news from the county’s finance director and some Bad News Bears– growling about how to deal with misbehaving councilors– at a Tuesday worksession in Elkton.

First the good news: the Cecil County public library has produced a video highlighting the “beauty” of the county and its attractions to start-up businesses, focusing on the owners of a very successful entrepreneurial business—Operative Experience, Inc.– that was incubated through the library’s small business development program.

Denise Davis, the library director, told the Council that the owners of the company have long credited the library with helping the start-up business to launch and grow into a successful venture. So she decided to interview the owners about their experiences and why they decided to locate the operation in Cecil County.

That resulted in a video, including still shots of the natural “beauty” of the county and commentary on the business benefits of the county’s location close to urban centers, as well as a local workforce providing “intelligent” and “solid” employees.

Working with the county’s economic development office, the video—titled “Beautiful Cecil County: Your Business Belongs”– will be used in a marketing campaign to attract new employers to the area. [SEE the video here: http://vimeo.com/73237693?utm_source=email&utm_medium=clip-transcode_complete-finished-20120100&utm_campaign=7701&email_id=Y2xpcF90cmFuc2NvZGVkfDVkYTczNDI1YmJmYWY0Y2E1ZmRmMWUzYzUxODAwZDYzODg5fDczNDQ4MzR8MTM3NzYyNDc0Mg%3D%3D ]

“The image of the county is so inaccurate,” Davis said of the common misperceptions about Cecil County in the rest of the state. “This really shows a creative, technologically advanced company,” she said. Lisa Webb, the county’s economic development director, said, “People are doing very innovative things in this county” and that message needs to be conveyed to the broader business community around the state.

County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) said he was pleased with the initiative led by the library and said the system should continue to “educate the citizens that you do more than book lending.”

(Hodge spearheaded a last-minute $100,000 cut in the library’s Fiscal 2014 budget request several months ago, a move that drew criticism from many citizen supporters of the public libraries.)

The budget also came up in the no news is bad news category, as least as far as Hodge was concerned. He tried repeatedly to get county Director of Finance Winston Robinson to disclose the amount of the county’s current “fund balance”—or reserve funds that are not allocated to specific programs in the budget. The county government tapped $4 million of the “fund balance” money to balance the Fiscal 2014 budget and freeze the property tax rate.

Hodge said he believed that even after tapping that $4 million, the fund balance “hasn’t been eaten away [and] it’s actually grown” in recent months due to higher than anticipated revenues from income taxes and other receipts. He tried repeatedly to get Robinson to confirm that point and provide even a rough estimate or a preliminary figure with “whatever footnotes you want” to qualify it.

But Robinson, an accountant, stood his ground and refused to offer any information on the status of the fund balance until a formal audit is completed in October. A frustrated Hodge complained that Councilors were aware of the financial trend in broad terms, “but Mr. Robinson won’t come out and say it.”

Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4), who has opposed new spending and bond financing of projects such as the new school of technology on the Basell site in Elkton, chimed in, telling Robinson he should “give us a ballpark” figure and said “we shouldn’t have to wait so long.”

Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) said the budget process was “grueling” and that citizens want “some simple explanations,” especially in light of the recent controversy over the Council’s approval of a $70 million bond authority package for a variety of projects including the tech school and upgrades of the Seneca Point sewage treatment plant. (The state is expected to grant the county a $20 million loan for the sewage plant that will reduce the bonding package to $50 million.)

Robinson did say that the county was planning to pay off the $50 million in bonds in about 10 years, which he called a “very aggressive” schedule to retire the bond debt.

The sparring between the Council and Robinson underscored the differences—both substantive and political—between the former Commissioner form of government and the new Charter system.

In the past, the independently-elected county Treasurer was in charge of all things financial and gave monthly reports to the Commissioners on the state of county finances. Pam Howard, the Treasurer for many years, had political savvy from having to run for elected office herself and—although she, too, is an accountant—managed to give the other elected officials the kind of updates and trend analysis they wanted. (Under Charter government, the independent Treasurer position was abolished and the new Director of Finance is appointed by the County Executive.)

Howard defeated Robinson, a political newcomer, and North East Mayor Robert McKnight in the Democratic primary for County Executive last year. But Howard was defeated in the general election by Tari Moore, who ran as a Republican but shifted to “unaffiliated” after the election.

Meanwhile, the Council also did an encore and expanded performance of its Bad News Bears show with another discussion of proposals to curb bad behavior by some members of the Council during public meetings. [SEE previous Cecil Times report on proposed bad behavior sanctions and 'time outs' here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/09/cecil-county-council-seeks-to-curb-food-fights-with-possible-time-outs-for-members-misbehavior/ ]

After discussions at previous worksessions, the Council received a proposed 10-step program (unlike the usual 12-steps of other recovery programs) to address and punish councilors who violate the broad rules of decorum previously adopted by the Council as part of its “policies and procedures” manual. That manual’s broad guidelines have proven inadequate to deal with the increasingly hostile work environment of Council meetings, so Council President Hodge asked the council manager and county attorney to draft specific, and escalating, punishments for violations of proper decorum.

A minor violation will require the Council president to “simply rap lightly” on his gavel; if a councilor “repeatedly questions the motives of other Council members” or “persists in speaking on completely irrelevant matters in debate,” the Council president or other members can “call the member to order.”

Then, if the Bad Bear Councilor persists, other Council members may seek a “penalty,” ranging from a mandated apology to expulsion from a meeting. Several of the ‘steps’ specify how the expulsion process would work, including the potential appointment of a sergeant at arms to “escort the offender to the door.”

Broomell, whose frequent outbursts and attacks against fellow Council members have prompted the review of new decorum rules, objected to the proposals. She also accused fellow Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1)—whose outspoken riposte to Broomell several weeks ago silenced her usual verbal dominance of worksessions– of “smirking” during the Tuesday discussion. [SEE previous Cecil Times report on McCarthy’s comments here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/09/cecil-county-council-let-them-eat-cake-broomell-melts-as-mccarthy-slices-her-venomous-icing-hodges-double-dip-dare/ ]

Broomell reiterated her view that the new proposals were designed to censor and silence critics, such as herself, who disagree with the positions of the Council majority.

Councilor Bowlsbey said she thought that Hodge had been “too lenient” in allowing Broomell to attack fellow councilors without sanctions in the past and “really letting some of the ranting and raving to go on…”

“Healthy debate is good,” Hodge said. But recent discussions have degenerated into “questioning the character” and “motives” of colleagues, he said. Councilors should “not make it personal and don’t go negative on people,” he added.

Council members will review the proposals and offer potential revisions before the list is offered as a formal revision to the Council procedures manual.

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16 Responses to Cecil County Council: Good News, No News and the Bad News Bears

  1. John u on September 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    The libraries are a net benefit to Cecil County and their useage is actually up, contrary to tea party testimony. Their funding should have been increased and the citizens of Cecil County should be aware of what unelected group is actually running this county.

    • Stupid Intolerant on September 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      Dear Mr.u,The TEA Party are citizens,albeit very concerned ones.They have the same access to county government that you do through county meetings and public comment at these meetings.They do not run these meetings or the county as you imply.They simply express the view point that we are TAXED ENOUGH ALREADY!

      • Joe C on September 29, 2013 at 7:51 pm

        I was disappointed that the TEA Party(AKA Patriots)sat silent during the comment period for the vote to increase the county debt by 50%(70 million). Next year will be to late as we all owe the principle and interest to the big Wall St. bankers. Another 5 million dollars on top of the 4 million we had to “borrow” from the fund balance account will be necessary to balance the budget. Now the council cannot even get the approximate balance from the Finance Director. How much do we really have?? Does anyone know? Time to bring back Bill Feehley!

    • Ron Lobos on September 27, 2013 at 4:46 am

      Once again, John, your statement is off base. Tea Party participants were not looking to cut funding to the libraries. What we were looking for is to have the libraries operate on the same budget this year as they did last year. That’s called being fiscally responsible.

      The libraries wanted to grow their budget by 10%. If every department in the county wanted to grow by the same amount as the libraries, we’d have to raise another $18M in revenue which means we need to increase taxes substantially.

      I have a suggestion for you John. I would applaud you if you decided to chair a fundraiser for the libraries and I would also contribute. Some people watch things happen and some people make things happen. Which one are you?

  2. Rick O'Shea on September 26, 2013 at 8:17 am

    I agree that the libraries are a net benefit to Cecil County. The rest of your post is right out of Councilor Broomell’s handbook of talking points.

    • SchoolMarm on September 27, 2013 at 7:47 am

      I doubt that Councilor Broomell considers the post her talking points as she voted to cut the library budget. It was well documented here and in other publications the comments of Mr. Hodge and the comments from the so-called “tea party” supporters concerning the library which caused the shocking reversal by ALL FIVE of the Council members concerning the library budget.

      The voices of library supporters need to be heard loudly and constantly; interestingly, there were as many members of the Friends of the Library of Cecil County as there were persons registered in the Cecil County Patriots (the last time I looked at available information).

      Perhaps Director Davis’ appearance before the Board will inspire others to speak out in favor of this important institution. It is NOT your Mother’s library anymore (though I personally like the “book lending” part so casually demeaned by President Hodge).

      • Rick O'Shea on September 27, 2013 at 10:02 am

        Broomell is always talking about the “special interests” that allegedly control Cecil County, as in her claim that “the citizens of Cecil County should be aware of what unelected group is actually running this county.” Her definition of special interest is those who disagree with her.

  3. Natalie Ricci on September 26, 2013 at 9:15 am

    It’s a sad state of affairs that the Library has to fill a void in marketing our great County when we fund a specific department of County Government to do the same. I’m happy that the Library stepped up, and extremely saddened that the County’s Department of Economic Development seems to have degraded into the County Office of Do Nothing.

    I realize that Vernon Thompson is an extremely tough act to follow; however, I have seen nothing original, innovative, or even at the very least, inspirational, coming out of the current Director. A very sad state of affairs indeed.

    • Mike H on September 27, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      Not sure where you’re getting (or not getting) your information, but I was with dozens of commercial brokers on Wednesday at an event hosted by Eco Dev where we received encouraging information on the changes in Cecil County with infrastructure, etc., and a book full of bldg/property info.

      My friend Scott Holland’s company had a ribbon cutting yesterday at their new place at Principio Business Park, and they were presented a check for $150K from your Eco Dev Director for the new small business revolving loan fund (I believe came from casino funds?)

      • broker mom on September 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm

        I heard that “encouraging information” too, but it didn’t sound like positive action taken by the Econ Development people. It is just the reality that the new County council majority is going ahead with fixing the problems at Seneca Point sewer plant. That is great but it has nothing to do with Mrs. Webb and the economic development dept. The “book” of buidings and property information is in fact very sad– all the vacant properties that are not being used, but available for lease or sale.

        And any casino money had nothing to do with the current director of economic development in Cecil County. Natalie had it right.

  4. Joe C on September 26, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    The fact that the council can not get a simple answer on how much money is in the “fund balance” leads to creditability of why an independent auditor who answers to the council is needed. We are in real trouble when we do not know how much money is in the “bank account”, which will most likely need to be “raided” again to pay for the runaway spending of the “Free Spending Three”.

    • Stupid Intolerant on September 27, 2013 at 11:47 pm

      Dear Mr.C, Let me make sure I’ve got this: you ridicule the”Free Spending Three” then suggest we need another accountant. Does the word redundancy mean anything to you? How about we hire an auditor for every councilor and while we’re at it a secretary, a courier and a body guard. Truth is you are parroting a desperate cry for attention from a diminished control freak.

      • Joe C on September 29, 2013 at 8:07 pm

        I do not want to spend money on anymore positions but we need to know the truth of on the fund balance. Charter has already cost way more than the Commissioner form of Government, contrary to what was promised when charter was sold to the citizens of Cecil County. The fact of the matter is the County Executive controls the Finance Dept, not the council, who must be approve all spending. They can not operate in a vacuum.

    • Bill De Freitas on September 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      People who can’t post their whole name deserve no creditability to their opinions!

    • Ron Lobos on September 29, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      Joe, I believe that you are about to find out in due time that Cecil County has a fund balance this year that exceeds that of last year. Although this is no excuse for handing the CCPS a windfall on the Basell school property, it does allow them to finance a bond for the CCPS that should be in all fairness paid for by the CCPS within their existing budget.

      Keep in mind that the CCPS has a rainy day fund that exceeds $8.5M. In the mean time they are only offering $1.5M toward the purchase of the Basell property. I truly think it is possible for the CCPS to pay for the Basell property money within their existing budget without extending an undue burden on county taxpayers.

      • Joe C on September 29, 2013 at 8:14 pm

        Ron, I hope there is more, but as you know it is the “People’s Money” and should be returned in the form of lowered taxes not increased debt. If the council really wanted to do something for the businesses they would take steps to cut the personnel property tax that businesses pay on owned equipment. I agree the schools should fund more of Basel “deal” with their fund balance, again more of the people’s money.

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