Cecil County Budget: Citizens’ Panel Proposes Cuts, $ Freeze in Schools, Public Safety; Warns Against Raiding Reserve Funds
A citizenâ€™s budget advisory panel told the Cecil County Council on Tuesday that it should slash county public schools spending to the bare bones level required by state law, ban overtime pay for guards at the county jail, and freeze almost all hiring. But the panel also cautioned that the county executiveâ€™s new budget proposal is endangering the countyâ€™s fiscal future by draining reserve funds in an uncertain economy to pay for current spending.
A similar list of recommendations by a citizensâ€™ panel including some of the same members was virtually ignored by the County Council last year. Several of the latest proposals drew obvious skepticism from Council members on Tuesday. But this time, there was more interest in some more detailed and intriguing analysis by the panel on the countyâ€™s economic future and concerns about a pattern of raiding past reserve funds accumulated over decades as a cushion against economic adversity but now being used to pay for current spending.
James Butkiewicz, an economist and chair of the seven-member panel, emphasized that the local economy, especially the real estate market, was still troubled and the county government should not be overly optimistic about economic recovery to support local government spending. And requests by county agencies for higher spending are suspect.
â€śThey always tie it to something noble, laudatory, and highly worthwhile,â€ť Butkiewicz said of county government departmentsâ€™ budget requests. But the County Council should look deeper into the rationales for higher spending, he said.
The citizensâ€™ panel recommended a bare-bones spending level for the county public schools, at the state-mandated â€śmaintenance of effortâ€ť level which means the spending per pupil established in the current budget year. That recommendation would mean a $2.8 million cut in public schools funds proposed by the County Executive for the new budget year.
Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) requested a 6.1 percent spending increase in the new Fiscal 2015 budget, but County Executive Tari Moore cut that request to a 3.5 percent increase, for a total of $72.1 million in operating expenses for the public schools. That proposal included a mandated increase of $3.3 million in county spending to covering a rising share of the cost of teacher pensions, which formerly were fully paid by the state but are now being dumped onto the counties in ever increasing proportions.
Another proposal by the advisory panel drew some shocked responses from Council members: reject a request by the Sheriffâ€™s department for seven new/replacement guards at the Detention Center ($261,000 a year) and deny payments for overtime pay for existing guards amounting to over $313,000 a year. The advisory panel suggested that greater efficiencies should reduce the need for overtime payments.
During recent testimony before the Council and the budget advisory group, Sheriff Barry Janney explained in detail the reasons and need for overtime pay and bringing on new guards. He noted that the county must provide off-site guards for a rising number of inmates who are hospitalized for medical conditions, and also the problem of low pay for Cecil County corrections officers that lead to high rates of staff turnover.
Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) voiced surprise and concern at the panelâ€™s recommendations, asking who would guard â€śthe chicken coopâ€ť if there was inadequate overtime pay to provide needed guards to supervise inmates. He also questioned whether the panel had considered the fact that the detention center had recently been expanded with a much larger inmate population requiring full-time supervision.
â€śWeâ€™re dealing with criminals,â€ť observed Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2).
Sheriff Janney had also requested permission for hiring two additional deputies to work on the countyâ€™s critical drug problem, but Moore cut that request to one new deputy. The advisory panel nixed that idea and proposed an overall county government hiring freeze, with the exception of a â€śfleet managerâ€ť to supervise the operations, maintenance and purchase of all vehicles used by county agencies.
The citizensâ€™ panel also urged requiring higher-mileage for all county vehicles before they are replaced; rather than the usual 100,000 mile threshold for replacement, the panel suggested phasing in higher mileage standards of 125,000 miles and in the future 150,000 miles per vehicle before replacement.
Butkiewicz cited his personal car, which he said was over 19 years old and had over 183,000 miles on it and â€śitâ€™s still running great.â€ť
For the Sheriffâ€™s department, which asked to replace 18 older patrol cars, the citizensâ€™ panel only supported replacement of 11 vehicles. The only law enforcement budget boost the group did support was a request of $50,000 for purchase of Tasers, especially for detention center guards.
The advisory panel also opposed Health Department supplemental spending requests of $345,000 for anti-drug initiatives; opposed hiring two additional dispatchers for the Emergency Services department; cut $20,000 from tourism development programs; cut $80,000 from county information technology programs; and eliminate $88,000 in aid to county non-profit groups that primarily serve disabled and handicapped people.
And the group opposed a major capital budget proposal to spend $2.6 million for the first phase of a more than $7 million plan to develop a regional park at Calvert that would build sports team playing fields.
While the advisory panel continued its past proposals of slashing county spending, this year members sounded a cautionary note on the fiscal underpinnings of the county executiveâ€™s budget policies: tapping reserve funds to pay for current spending.
Mooreâ€™s budget for the current fiscal year proposed using $4.3 million of unassigned â€śfund balanceâ€ť money, but the Council cut about $600,000 from that figure. But storm damages and other unanticipated expenses have boosted reliance on the fund balances by about another $2 million.
Mooreâ€™s new Fiscal 2015 budget, which takes effect on 7/1/14, proposes tapping the fund balances by another $4.1 million.
But Butkiewicz warned that the county should be wary of such continued reliance on reserve funds because the still soft real estate market means that property values are still depressed. As a result, the county cannot rely on rising property values to bolster its revenues. (In addition, Mooreâ€™s new budget provides a freeze on property tax rates for the second consecutive year, so tax revenues are flat.)
The advisory panel did not address issues with the countyâ€™s dwindling income tax revenues. A recent presentation to the County Council showed that the income tax revenues were down by about $1 million over previous projections for the current budget year. [See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2014/04/cecil-county-budget-current-budget-year-on-fiscal-track-despite-drop-in-income-tax-revenue-watersewer-funds-still-lag-behind-costs/ ]
The County Council will meet next Tuesday to discuss budget options in a worksession format and is slated to vote final approval of a new budget on 5/20/14.