Cecil County Budget: Council Adopts Exec’s Budget with Few Changes, Property Tax Freeze– as Some Candidates Make Hay
It was hardly a surprise when the Cecil County Council adopted, by a 3-2 majority vote Tuesday evening, a minimally revised version of County Executive Tari Moore’s proposed Fiscal 2015 budget. The key decisions had all been thrashed out at a worksession last week and another session Tuesday morning.
But before the ink had even been applied to the final document, the budget was negative political fodder for some election candidates who’ve never shown up at a budget worksession or presentation to the Council by county department heads, and some who criticize the county public schools while demonstrating they could use some remedial English lessons.
Even as the Council was meeting on the budget, one political challenger was sending out negative campaign robocalls and attacks. That prompted an unusually blunt response, in an email to county schools employees obtained by Cecil Times from confidential sources, by County Schools Superintendent D’Ette Devine—noting the voting records of two current Council members who have consistently opposed school program spending and advising about challenger candidates who also oppose education spending.
The two Council members who voted against the county budget and who are both candidates for re-election—Councilors Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3)— didn’t cover themselves in glory in the budget process.
Dunn in particular was disingenuous in voting against both the operating budget and the capital improvement budget on final passage. (He also voted against freezing the current property tax rate.) But in fact, Dunn was the decisive worksession voter to keep nearly $2.6 million for development of the Calvert regional park in the capital budget and didn’t support a last minute bid by Broomell to cut out the capital budget’s entire Calvert line item.
Initially, County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) had sought to cut the park expenditure in the new capital budget to $1 million and defer the balance but he lost to an unlikely coalition of Dunn and Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2). But despite his worksession loss, Hodge voted for the overall capital budget on final passage—as did McCarthy and Bowlsbey. Did Dunn forget his earlier vote when he cast his dissent Tuesday night?
The Council did cut the capital budget by $2.89 million by deleting a proposed extension of the CECO sewer lines to the Cherry Hill sewage treatment plant, a decision that was unanimous among Council members.
Broomell, who often portrays herself as the only enlightened advocate of solving the county’s drug abuse crisis without relying on methadone treatment programs, used the budget’s inclusion of $345,000 in new county spending for three new anti-drug programs as a platform to demand the resignation of County Health Officer Stephanie Garrity at the Tuesday morning worksession.
As she attacked Garrity yet again, Hodge told Broomell that she was being “disruptive” and “your strategy of badmouthing others” and “calling people liars” only harmed the prospects of county and state officials collaborating on anti-drug efforts.
During the Council’s deliberations, Hodge repeatedly challenged Broomell to offer detailed written amendments if she so chose, but she did not do so, saying several times she needed more time to gather information.
The budget proposal includes expanded local outreach to addicts through “peer” counselors, a drug treatment program at the county Detention Center and a new program aimed at youths who are first-time drug offenders. Instead, Broomell suggested Tuesday morning that she wanted to spend the money for additional beds at the state-operated Whitsett Center in Chestertown that provides in-patient detox services.
But Hodge and budget officials pointed out to her that such a step was procedurally and legally impossible, so if the new anti-drug money were to be cut from the county budget the dollars would simply go back to the county’s general fund and the Hollywood casino revenue account that Moore tapped to cover the anti-drug program costs.
Overall, the Council paid more attention this year than in the two preceding years to recommendations by a Citizens Budget Advisory Committee. The Council agreed with suggestions—although at a more moderate pace—to require county vehicles including Sheriff’s deputies patrol cars to clock higher mileage before being replaced. So instead of the 18 replacement cars sought by the Sheriff, the budget only provides for 12 and other county departments will have to clock more miles on their vehicles under a $65,000 budget cut. And the advisory panel found an $11,000 error in the Council’s own budget that was fixed in the final budget actions.
All told, the minimal reductions result in an operating budget of $178,417,897, according to county Director of Finance Winston Robinson. The new Fiscal 2015 budget year begins on July 1.
Even as the Council was putting the finishing touches on the new budget, several political candidates who were neither seen nor heard during the official budget process were denouncing it in other venues and trying to make their own political capital.
A Tuesday night robocall went out around Cecil County, attributed to the campaign of Chris Zeauskas, a candidate in the Republican primary for Bowlbey’s Council seat in District 2. According to some recipients, the call attacked Bowlsbey and, in particular, the county public schools system and its superintendent, Dr. Devine.
In a subsequent Facebook post, Zeauskas accused Bowslsbey of “purposely lying” and “immoral behavior” for saying she “will fight tax increases.” However, the two budgets on which Bowlsbey has voted both froze the property tax rate at 0.9907 cents per $100 of assessed property value–the same level set when the “Three Amigos” approved the last County Commissioner-drafted budget in 2012. The Amigos majority faction included Broomell, Dunn and former Commissioner James Mullin (R-1). Mullin has been a substantial donor to Zeauskas’ campaign funds.
Zeauskas’ political ally and “Cecil County Campaign for Liberty” fellow traveler Robert Willick, who is a candidate in the GOP primary for Dunn’s Council seat, has sharply criticized the county schools budget, along with spending for most other county programs. In a campaign flyer, recently also posted on Facebook, Willick says he will “put the principals [sic] of constitutionally limited government into practice at the local level.” He may have his principles but perhaps he should discuss with a local school principal his possible enrollment in a remedial spelling and grammar program.
As of this week, another candidate—Michael A. Dawson (known in Perryville as MAD Mike to differentiate him from another similarly-named candidate running for another local office—formally linked with the Zeuaskas-Willick group. Postings on Willick’s Facebook page advocated support for the three and show a ballot with red check marks on their names. MAD Dawson is running for Broomell’s Council seat, although some political observers see Dawson’s run as a bid to divide the anti-Broomell vote in the GOP primary in which George Patchell—executive director of the county YMCA—is also running against Broomell.
The Zeauskas-Willick-Dawson group members have particularly targeted the county’s public schools budget, advocating only the bare-bones state-mandated “maintenance of effort” spending level—which would have meant an additional $2.3 million reduction in the schools’ budget request. That request had already been pared down about $1.8 million by Moore. Zeauskas has specifically opposed spending on vocational education programs such as the new vo-tech school being built on the former Basell property. He favors private apprentice programs.
In the email obtained by Cecil Times, Dr. Devine responded to county schools’ employees –many of whom were upset about the robocall—with an “update” on the budget process and some key political players. She noted that incumbent Councilors Dunn and Broomell have “repeatedly voted against ANYTHING that could be construed as support of our school system.”
“Apparently they are not concerned with stalled salaries, impoverished children or failing facilities,” she wrote.
She also advised county schools employees to become informed about candidates for the County Council in the upcoming elections. She said that Zeauskas, Willick and MAD Dawson “have platforms that do not support the adequate funding of our schools and are quite vocal in their opposition.” Dr. Devine also advised schools employees that the Republican primary election will be “critical, given the way that the county majority normally votes.”
In an interview with Cecil Times, Dr. Devine said Thursday that her email was part of a series of routine “updates” of school employees to advise them of the budget process that affects them and their jobs. And her comments about the incumbent Council members seeking re-election (Dunn and Broomell) were simply based on “facts.”
“That’s not an endorsement,” Dr. Devine said. “That’s what is on the record and what are facts.” And her comments on the other aspiring candidates were based on their public statements and positions, she added.
Meanwhile, Council President Hodge told Cecil Times that this year’s budget process was smoother than last year’s first-ever Charter government process—which at the time he described as “ugly.”
This year, “It was less ugly,” he said. There were no last minute amendments without previous discussions, Broomell apparently did not “do her homework” to offer written detailed amendments, and other council members were either content with the executive’s budget proposals or did not have alternatives of their own.
But next year may be a different story, he added. Hodge said he had given county departments “fair warning” that in next year’s budget process he would advocate another property tax rate “freeze” and whatever spending cuts it might take to achieve that goal.