Cecil County Budget: Council Backs Most of County Exec Budget, Majority Supports Calvert Park; County Bond Rating Upgraded
The Cecil County Council indicated informal support for most of County Executive Tari Mooreâs proposed Fiscal 2015 budget during a Tuesday afternoon worksession, supporting county schools and library spending and rejecting a bid by Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) to scale back spending on a new regional park.
But the Council did agree to save $2.8 million by deferring a sewer upgrade at Cherry Hill and to use the budget process to require higher mileage for county Sheriffâs cars before they are replaced.
And County Executive Moore announced Tuesday that one national bond rating agency had upgraded its rating of the countyâs bond credit-worthiness, a move that could reduce the costs of county borrowing for capital projects.
Hodge declared at the outset of the session that the panel was not taking any formal votes but as members went through the line items, as well as recommendations from a citizensâ budget advisory panel, the majority sentiments were clear. The Council will hold another worksession next week and will conduct its formal votes and adoption of a new budget at its evening meeting on Tuesday 5/20/14.
Par for the course at recent Council worksessions, Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) took verbal shots at fellow council members and was admonished several times by Hodge for straying from the budget items discussion at hand. Her usual videographer was not present to record the afternoon session, so the proceedings moved along relatively smoothly. (The camera was rolling at a morning worksession with a light agenda, and Broomell went into her now standard vocal complaints about minutes of previous meetings, leading to several gavel-poundings and a warning from Hodge.)
The most unusual alliance of the day came when the Council discussed the proposal to spend $2.58 million for âphase oneâ of development of a regional park at Calvert. Hodge suggested spending just $1 million in the new budget and deferring the balance. Broomell said she supported a regional park but wanted some community financial support such as has been arranged at another facility used by local soccer leagues.
County Budget Manager Craig Whiteford said that the âphase oneâ plan would develop a synthetic field, grass fields, a parking area and walking trails within a 12-18 month timeframe. âThatâs the magic plan,â he said, âso youâre not sitting there with a shellâ of a facility.
The Calvert park proposal has been the subject of an extensive lobbying campaign, including social media, emails, phone calls and appearances at Council meetings, by supporters of the project. And in an unusual move for county department heads, the parks director, Clyde VanDyke, was actively and publicly promoting the cause.
The Citizens Budget Advisory Committee opposed any funds for the Calvert park in the new budget, saying it did not believe the contentionâadvanced by VanDyke and park supportersâthat the county could make money on the park by renting out fields to out-of-county teams holding sports tournaments at the site. âWhile the proposal is popular, it will not succeed as a âbusiness ventureâ and will require continuous county funding for its maintenance and operations,â the seven-member panel wrote in its report to the Council last week.
But Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) endorsed the full budget request, saying they had received overwhelming community calls of support for the project. And Councilor Michael Dunn (R-3), the Councilâs representative to the Parks and Recreation board, turned his back on the budget advisory panel for the first time in two years and instead said he would support the full park budget request.
Throughout the session, Hodge emphasized that the discussions were to focus on the numbers, not long-simmering policy debates. Broomell took issue with that, saying, âyouâre trying to ram this through.â
When Hodge asked her if she had specific budget cut proposals to presentââIf you have a proposal, put it on the tableâ– Broomell said she felt she needed more time and information to offer changes to various aspects of the budget. âThis meeting has been scheduled months in advance,â Hodge pointed out.
Last year, there were several last-minute budget cuts offered in the final moments before adoption of the budget by the Councilâa process that Hodge admitted later had been âugly.â But he indicated there would not be a repeat of that process this year.
âThereâs going to be a resistance to last-minute changes without discussion,â Hodge warned, while Bowlsbey said, âOn May 20 I donât want surprises.â
During discussion of the Department of Public Works budgetâa frequent target of her ireâBroomell objected to a $100,000 proposal for design and planning to extend sewer lines to the Holloway Beach community near Charlestown and very close to the countyâs Seneca Point sewage treatment plant. Broomell opposed âinvesting in an area that isnât in our growth corridor.â
Public Works Director Scott Flanigan said the area was the Health Departmentâs top priority for providing sewer service due to failing septics, health issues and environmental concerns due to the communityâs location near the Chesapeake Bay.
Bowlsbey said she had visited the community and especially after rainfall, the conditions were âdeplorable.â âThis area is in trouble,â Bowlsbey said. And, she added with a grin, âI donât have any houses there, Diana, I promise you.â
No other council members backed Broomell in her opposition to the proposal, so the county executiveâs public works budget was endorsed by the councilâwith one exception. All members agreed with the budget advisory panelâs recommendation to defer $2.8 million in capital spending to build an upgrade of certain sewer lines at Cherry Hill because there was no urgent need at the moment.
The Council also indicated support for a modified version of the advisory panelâs call for increasing the current 100,000 miles threshold for replacing county Sheriffâs department vehicles. After a lengthy discussion and tweaking proposals on how to accomplish that goal, the Council eventually had a majority in favor of either cutting $65,000 or dropping two vehicles from the Sheriffâs request for 18 new cars. âI want to stretch out the life cycle of some of these vehiclesâŚbut I donât want to micromanage it,â Hodge said.
Bowlsbey objected, saying that higher maintenance costs for older cars could mean actual savings in the new budget of only about half that amountâand there would still be the need to replace the cars in a short period of time.
Overall, the Council indicated a majority for supporting the county executiveâs budget requests for Cecil College, county public schools, the libraries, the stateâs attorneyâs office (including an additional prosecutor to handle drug cases and bail hearings) and hiring an additional Sheriffâs deputy.
[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report on Moore's budget proposal here:
Meanwhile, Moore announced Tuesday that one of the two national agencies that rate the countyâs bonds had given a slight upgrade to the countyâs bond status. Standard & Poorâs raised its credit-worthiness ranking of an upcoming issuance of $48 million in bonds to finance various capital improvement projects, boosting the countyâs rating from AA to AA+. (The highest S&P rating is AAA.)
âThe County is committed to prudent and rational fiscal policies,â Moore said. The uptick in the S&P rating would make county bonds more attractive to investors, so the county may be able to pay investors a lower interest rate in return for increased confidence in the bonds.
[UPDATE: The county issued the $48 million in bonds on Thursday 5/15/14 and the interest rate the county will pay is 2.85 percent, according to a press release from the county executive.]
The other major bond rating agency, Moodyâs Investor Services, retained its existing rating for the countyâs new bond issue, Aa2. In Moodyâs independent announcement of its rating of the new bond issue, the agency stated the bond sale proceeds would be used to âprovide new money for various county projects and reimburse the county for prior years cash outlays.â