Cecil County Exec: In First Year of Charter Govt., Moore Claims Accomplishments; Seeks Property Tax Freeze Again
A Cecil Times Exclusive Report
Cecil Countyâs first County Executive, Tari Moore, reflected upon her first year in office under the new Charter government in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Cecil Times, saying she plans to freeze property tax rates again next year, may cut future retirement benefits for new county employees, and is still standing by the countyâs $2.2 million animal control contract with a Delaware animal rescue group.
In an hour and a half interview in her office in the county administration building in Elkton, Moore spoke candidly about her first year in office, her agenda, and even her own personality traits and leadership style.
Most significant for county taxpayers is Mooreâs comment that she wants, for the second consecutive year, to freeze county property tax rates in the new Fiscal 2015 budget that she will propose to the County Council in March, 2014. But for county employees, there are some cautions: Moore is considering shifting some full-time workers to part-timers and studying possible reduced retirement benefits for new employees.
And in the one major area in which the County Council stood up to Moore in the current budget yearâher proposed boosts in sewer hook-up feesâMoore is uncertain if she will try again to make those âenterprise fundsâ pay their own way to cover fully the costs of services provided to users of sewage treatment systems in the more urban areas of the county. Residents of the more rural parts of the county who do not have public sewer services have complained that all taxpayers have been subsidizing costs of sewerage services they do not receive if ratepayers do not pay the full costs of their own utilities.
Moore was elected as Cecil Countyâs first-ever County Executive in the 2012 election and was sworn into office on 12/3/12. Since then, she has overseen the transition of county government from an often warring five-member, part-time Board of Commissioners with shared authority to oversee county government operations, to a concentrated power base of a lone executive running the government on a daily basis. The powers of the new County Council are significantly reduced from the Commissionersâ system under Charter government.
County voters overwhelming approved the shift to Charter government in the 2010 election, indicating a strong community yearning for a new way of doing county business in Elkton. Moore said she believed the âtransition has really gone beautifully,â despite âa few minor bumps in the road.ââ The âteamâ of county employees and senior department officials âhave really come togetherâ to bring âa lot of innovationâ to the operations of county government in the first year of Charter government.
She said there has been a âcontinuityâ of most past department heads while empowering them to offer suggestions to improve operations during regular departmental meetings with the executive. In addition, Moore said, she has included the administrator of the countyâs court system and public library to expand the reach into related, but technically independent, operations that are in part funded by the county.
Those meetings are âvery frank,â Moore said, but bring to the table issues that need to be addressed. âI have been pretty hands-onâ in managing operations of the county government, Moore said. And, even before the upcoming budget process begins in earnest for the Fiscal 2015 budget year, Moore said she has used the staff meetings to prod department heads to consider shifting full-time employees to part-time status to cut costs. âWeâve got a real challenge with our budget next year,â she said.
Under the previous Board of Commissioners, and during the first year of her administration and Charter government, Moore said she wanted to resist major changes in local government and avoid âlayoffsâ of employees, but now âitâs time to look at that,â she said.
The biggest change for her, Moore said, is that as a county Commissioner she was just one of five overseers of the local government and often was âon the losing endâ of a lot of 3-2 votes on that board, which was for two years controlled by the âThree Amigosâ majority that was broken up by the results of the 2012 elections.
One of her first duties as County Executive was to do some ârelationship buildingâ inside and outside county government, repairing relationships that had been strained under the Three Amigosâ rule and encouraging county employees to feel free to speak up âwithout fear of losing their jobs.â
In a wide-ranging discussion with Cecil Times, Moore addressed multiple issues facing the county:
Moore said she recently sent a letter to Gov. Martin OâMalley, asking for state aid in four areas to address the crucial issue of drug abuse in the county: law enforcement, treatment of addicts, drug abuse prevention, and patient recovery. She asked for âstability in fundingâ for existing programs as well as some new initiatives.
Significantly, Moore said she was asking for a new 50-50 match of state and county funds to support a designated state forensic analyst to give priority to Cecil County criminal drug cases to expedite analysis of suspected drug substances confiscated by police, so as to enhance prosecution of offenders. A backlog of drug-testing cases often forces prosecutors to drop or reduce criminal drug charges in order to comply with state speedy trial mandates, Moore observed.
Moore acknowledged that a recent designation of Cecil County as eligible for federal âHigh Impact Drug Trafficking Areaâ funds was ânot a magic bulletâ and would most likely only provide minimal funds to address the law enforcement side of the drug problem.
But she said she was working with the independently-elected county Sheriff to re-establish a K9 unit that could use dogs to detect illegal drugs.
âWeâre still not where we should be,â Moore acknowledged about the countyâs largely laggard efforts to woo major businesses to the county to provide new jobs to county residents and expand the taxbase so that residential properties do not have to continue to provide the bulk of tax revenues to support county government expenses.
Many proposals come in to the county and require lots of work to respond to, but donât necessarily result in a major business choosing the county, the county executive noted. Last spring, Moore said, the county came in second in a national search by a major Fortune 500, âhuge, hugeâ business for a new locationâwhich would have brought âseveral thousandâ jobs and major investment to the county. The business demanded a short 18 months timeframe for all permits and approvals, requiring âhuge meetingsâ of various county and state officials but in the end, the county did not woo the business.
âItâs only a matter of time,â Moore said optimistically, before the county lands some major business investments. âA lot of seeds are being planted.â
Moore faced her biggest challenge from the County Council over her proposal in the current budget year to boost sewer hook-up fees from $8,000 to $16,100, based upon many years of the County Commissioners refusing to make the tough political decision to require developers to pay the full freight of sewage costs. The Council cut the fees to $12,000, and subsequently stalled the effective date of even those lower fees for several months so as to allow one major developer to get hook-ups at the lower costs.
Asked if she would try again in the new budget to push for higher sewer hookup fees, Moore responded, âI canât answer that.â
Moore did request, and receive, a modest $30,000 in the current budget to pay partial costs for a study of creating a county water/sewer authority, to co-ordinate county and town systems so as to âtake the politics outâ of the fee-setting and planning process, as Moore said last winter in proposing such an option. She has done nothing to pursue that study, Moore acknowledged, and she is unsure if she will pursue that option and will not ask for additional funds in the new budget to fully fund such a study.
Moore did say that the county would continue talks with the town of Elkton to âpartnerâ with the townâs sewer system to serve a limited portion of the Route 40 growth corridor that is without such services, and which poses an impediment to business development in the area.
In the final moments of the old Board of Commissioners, the âThree Amigosâ majority approved a more than $2.2 million, three-year contract with A Buddy for Life, a Delaware animal rescue group with no shelter, no experience in animal control, and no employees. As a commissioner, Moore voted against the contract but as county executive, she has declined to exercise her power to terminate the Buddies contract, despite numerous citizen complaints and issuesâincluding the death of a family pet and vicious attack upon a woman who agreed to be a âfosterâ parent for a Buddy-placed dog.
âWe have been activeâ in working on âcorrecting deficiencies,â Moore said, and the Buddies have responded âwith a positive attitude.â Moore said the Buddies are still âfiguring out who they are, where they are and what they are supposed to do.â
âI could have given them notice,â she said, and told the group ââYouâre terminated.â But she chose not to do so, because âthatâs not the right thing to do.â So, Moore said, she decided âto give it a try.â And âI went into it with my eyes wide open,â she added.
âI wanted it to succeed,â Moore said of the countyâs $2.2 million contract with the Buddy group.
She said she and county Director of Administration Al Weinâwho has been the main point person in overseeing the animal control issueâhave met with Buddy leaders and told them that they must âstep up and do what you are being paid to do.â
Asked what it would takeâsuch as the serious injury of a child– for her to use the authority of her office and the contractâs provisions allowing the county to terminate the animal control contract for any reason, Moore had no response. But she did say she might want to âre-negotiateâ the contract with the Buddies.
TARI ON TARI:
Tari Moore has established a political âstyleâ that reflects a personable, and personal, approach to voters. Even when provoked by political opponents while a county Commissioner, she always kept her cool. So what, if anything, sets her off, and does she ever vent and shout at people behind closed doors?
âI donât like to lose my temper because I think it is a waste of energy,â Moore responded, with a laugh at the question.
She said she had to learn many years ago to control her temper: âI had a very bad temper,â Moore admitted, which she âinheritedâ from her father. Now, âI donât get angry so much as I get frustrated.â
âIâve had to re-invent myselfâ many times in the past, she said, noting that she had a local government career and was planning to run for public office in Utah when her husband, Steve, suddenly announced his job was being transferred to Cecil County.
âIs it all Pollyanna here? No, of course not,â Moore said. But she doesnât yell at people behind closed doors. âThatâs not my style,â she said. Instead, she wants to push people to âbe the best they can beâ and she tries to figure out âwhat motivatesâ people.
And, reflecting on her first year in the job of County Executive, Moore said, âI love it.â It is both âthe most difficultâ and âmost rewardingâ job she has ever had. âThe community here has embraced me, prayed for me, yelled at me and criticized me,â she said with a laugh.
âThereâs an old adage: if everybodyâs happy, then you are not doing your job.â