Cecil County Council Election Face-Off: Patchell Flubs Budget; Drugs, Jobs Seen by Most as Key Issues
Candidates for the three open Cecil County Council seats at stake in the November general election faced off 10/8/14 in an issues forum at the Cecil College campus in North East, with most candidates focusing on the economy and drug abuse issues as key concerns for the county’s future.
But one candidate flubbed a county budget issue and another didn’t seem to understand the Internet and broadband issues, while most candidates pledged to be polite and collaborative in a new County Council– in contrast to the often open warfare that has prevailed in the Council for the past two years.
During the forum moderated by former county schools superintendent Carl Roberts and sponsored by the county Chamber of Commerce, candidates for the Council seats were asked the same questions and given a limited time for responses. The forum format did not provide for back-and-forth debate among the candidates.
A question about the county budget, and how the Council would interact with the County Executive in the budget process, drew a numerical slip from one candidate in District 4 when George Patchell, a Republican, miscalculated the public school system’s proportion of the county budget.
Patchell, the executive director of the Cecil County YMCA who has also been active in mentoring youth groups, said that 50 percent of the county’s operating budget “goes to maintenance of effort” requirements for the school system.
For several years, county school officials have sought to correct the public misperception that close to or more than a majority of the overall county operating budget’s spending is attributable to the schools. Asked by Cecil Times for the actual ratio in the current Fiscal 2015 county operating budget, Tom Kappra, the public schools’ chief financial officer, said it was 41 percent of the enacted county budget.
In addition, Patchell said his higher proportion reflected only the “maintenance of effort” level of local funding, which is required by state law. But that is a bare-bones minimum—requiring a county to contribute at least as much as it did to the schools in the previous budget year. In the current budget, the county provided $2.8 million above the “maintenance of effort” level of funding. So the candidate’s calculation is even more off base from the actual budget picture.
Patchell is running for the Council seat currently held by Diana Broomell, whom he defeated in the June Republican primary.
Responding to the budget question, Patchell’s November rival, Wayne Tome– a Democrat who is the current mayor of Port Deposit and a former Cecil County Commissioner– said that key budget issues should be “addressed beforehand,” with the Council working constructively with the County Executive before the executive sends her budget proposal to the Council. (Under the county Charter, the Council only has the power to cut formal budget spending proposals by the executive, not re-allocate or increase spending among county departments.)
Asked how they would advance their own priorities, while working with the rest of the County Council, Tome responded, “It’s your priorities” that matter, not his own, as he nodded toward the audience. Tome said he would meet regularly with community groups to listen to their concerns. He added that the county must also address a “brain drain” of experienced teachers and emergency responders who leave county service for better pay and benefits elsewhere.
Patchell answered that he would work constructively at “improving the quality of life in Cecil County” and would “work for the common good.” He said his leadership style would be “amicable and professional” in the County Council.
In response to a question on the most significant problem facing the county, Patchell said “lack of economic development” was crucial and noted that half of county school children were eligible for free or reduced-price meals due to low family income.
Tome said he saw drug abuse as the most significant problem, saying “we need to change the culture of the county” and convince local residents to be “the eyes and ears” of law enforcement to help deter drug dealers. Tome also advocated stronger anti-drug education among youths and said the drug issue affected everything in the county, from economic development to public safety, and “we need to wake up as a county.”
In the District 2 County Council race, incumbent Republican Joyce Bowlsbey is being challenged by John Ulrich, a Democrat. Bowlsbey is a retired Gore executive and longtime volunteer on multiple county advisory panels, including leadership of the panel that drafted the county Charter that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2010 to change the county’s governance from the old County Commissioners system. Ulrich is a professional real estate appraiser with strong ties to the local business community and chairs the local Democratic Central Committee.
Asked how Charter government is working and its definition of the roles of the County Executive and County Council, Bowlsbey said the intent of Charter was to make local government more “streamlined,” a goal she said has been achieved. “I think the government is working well,” she said, adding that “we need fewer bills, not more” from the Council as a legislative body.
Ulrich agreed that Charter was an efficient system but he cautioned that the Council should have “more power” to guard against the County Executive making “unilateral decisions.”
Ulrich said he saw drug abuse as the key issue facing Cecil County, saying it affected everything, from economic development to law enforcement to education. Bowlsbey said she thought that “Progress is the most important issue” in the county, adding that stumbling blocks in economic development, the drug problem, education, and public safety were all linked.
In District 3, Dan Schneckenburger, a Republican, is facing Robert Porter, a Democrat, in the November election. Schneckenburger, who defeated incumbent Councilor Michael Dunn in the Republican primary, is an engineer who has served on numerous county advisory panels dealing with jobs and economic development and is a former president of the county Chamber of Commerce. Porter is a retired small business owner and land preservation advocate.
Both candidates agreed that the lack of jobs in the county was the top problem facing the area. Wearing a bolo tie and with a fedora-style hat on the table next to him, Porter said that the lack of “services” in the Route 40 growth corridor was a stumbling block to job creation, and he said the area needed “electronic services.” Porter said area landowners could “foot the bill” for needed infrastructure.
(A recent advisory panel report on broadband and high-speed Internet in Cecil County found a lack of communication infrastructure in the growth corridor and urged the County Executive to allocate some $740,000 a year in cable TV franchise fees to initiatives for expansion of broadband services, from the franchise funds that are now folded into the general county operating budget.)
“The top issue is job creation in Cecil County,” said Schneckenburger, adding that the jobs issue is “all over my signs” and campaign literature. He urged co-ordination with the new high-tech center being built at the old Chrysler plant in Delaware and suggested that part of the 91 acres at the Basell property—where the county’s new School of Technology will be built—could be set aside for economic development initiatives.