Cecil County Exec Proposes Charter Changes to Give Her More Time–and a Heavy Hammer– on Budget; Cuts Time For County Council, Citizen Input
Cecil County Executive Tari Moore has proposed the first changes to the countyâs governing Charter, adopted by voters in 2010, that would give her an extra month to draft her annual budget but would cut two weeks from the time that the County Council, citizens, and a budget advisory panel would have to review her proposals.
In addition, under an amendment to her initial proposals that was offered on Tuesday 7/8/14, Moore would mandate a fiscal hammer: if the County Council failed to adopt a budget by a new June 15 deadline, her original budget proposal would automatically become law.
The Moore proposals shift the balance of power to the county executive even more than the Charter already provides under a governance system that creates a powerful executive and a relatively weak legislative branch of local government. Review of the executiveâs budget is one of the few powers of the Council under the existing Charter, but the new proposals would hamstring the Council further and limit the time and opportunities for citizens to voice their viewpoints on the budget.
The Moore proposals, introduced last week as resolutions before the County Council, would require Council approval before they could be placed on the November general election ballot– for voters to decide if they should become law as amendments to the countyâs Charter.
In recent presentations to the County Council, Moore administration officials explained the proposals as a way to draft a more accurate and responsive budget, since the state General Assembly is still in session until the first week in April and the current Charter deadline for the executive to present a budget to the County Council is March 1. The current schedule requires the County Council to complete its review and adopt a new budget by May 31 each year, so that county government agencies have time to prepare necessary documents and procedures before the July 1 start of the county fiscal year.
Mooreâs proposals would give her an extra month to draft her budgetâbut cut by two weeks the County Councilâs timeframe for action. Under her proposals, she would not have to give the Council her budget plan until April 1, and the Council would have until June 15 to pass a budget resolution. That schedule cuts two weeks from the Councilâs current time period for review, county attorney Jason Allison told the Council on Tuesday.
And under an amendment proposed by Moore on Tuesday, if the Council did not take final action on the entire budget by June 15, her budget would automatically become law, regardless of the Councilâs views or informal decisions on individual line items in the budget made during preliminary worksessions of the Council.
But Moore is not required by law to hold public hearings, formally introduce resolutions and hold public meetings with citizens before she sends her budget to the Council. In contrast, the County Council is required by the Charter to render decisions, advertise them to the public, hold public hearings and conduct formal legislative sessions before a budget is adopted.
In addition, for the past two years the County Council has sought the advice of a Citizensâ Budget Advisory Panel to review the executiveâs budget proposal. The Council has also conducted a busy schedule of multiple budget worksession hearings at which individual department heads â and independent agencies such as the Sheriffâs Department– have testified in detail about their budgetary needs and proposals. This year, the advisory panel members participated in those departmental discussions and had the opportunity to ask their own questions.
The County Executive already holds the majority of power in budget matters under the county Charter, empowered to propose a budget that the County Council cannot increase or re-allocate to reflect differing priorities. The council is only empowered to cut spending proposed in the executiveâs budget, with the exception of some education allocations. The County Executive also has the power to propose budget amendments throughout the year as priorities and economic conditions change, asking the Council to approve additional spending or re-allocation of funds among county departments.
At Tuesdayâs County Council worksession, Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) seemed to be on board with Mooreâs Charter revisions. Bowlsbey headed a local citizenâs group that drafted the current Charter that was approved by voters in 2010.
âWe could do it quicker,â Bowlsbey said, adding that the Council could expedite its department headsâ budget worksessions so as to accommodate the tighter time frame for council review of the budget under Mooreâs proposals.
âThat concerns me,â Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) said of the abbreviated schedule that the Council would have for budget review. âThe public has to weigh in,â on the budget, Broomell added, and citizens would have less time to learn about the budget and its implications.
Winston Robinson, the county executiveâs Director of Finance, said the administration âwas not trying to shrinkâ the County Councilâs review period. But the calendar of Mooreâs proposals show that is exactly the end result of the requested Charter amendments.
Robinson sought to bolster the administrationâs case for the Charter changes by saying he âcould not guaranteeâ that county property tax bills would be sent to local residents by the usual July 1 date unless the budget was approved by the drop-dead date for the Council to act. Robinsonâs statement seemed to hold weight with Bowlsbey, who said that she was concerned that citizens would be upset if they did not get their property tax bills by July 1.
The proposed budget revisions to the Charter bear the pencil-pushing mark of Robinson, an accountant with considerable skills in fiscal management but zero political skills. (He lost overwhelmingly in a bid for County Executive in the Democratic primary in the 2012 local election.) The new Charter revisions make Moore look like she is pursuing a power grabâeven if that is not her actual intent and she is simply listening to fiscal advisers with their own bureaucratic rationales.
Even the most civic-minded county citizens who try to be informed on local issues would be hard-pressed to learn about and evaluate the county budget proposals with a more compressed schedule for citizen and Council review. And the County Council itselfâwhich will have new members elected in the November general election, following the primary elections that ousted two incumbentsâwill have a learning curve for the upcoming budget that will be proposed next year.
The current County Council should decline to approve these proposed Charter revisions. But if the proposals do end up on the November ballot, voters should reject them as an improper intrusion on the rights, and voices, of citizens who should be heard in important local budget matters.
[UPDATE: The County Council has scheduled a “special legislative session” to hold a public hearing on the proposed Charter amendments. The hearing will be held at 7 p.m. 7/29/14 at the county administration building in Elkton.]