COMMENTARY: Cecil County Charter Amendments on Election Ballot– NO on Questions A and D; YES on Questions B and C
In this yearâ€™s election, Cecil County voters are being asked to decide four local ballot questions on whether to overhaul some key provisions of the countyâ€™s new Charter form of government. The proposed changes would alter the county budget process and in some cases tilt the balance of power toward the County Executive in key fiscal matters.
Consequently, Cecil Times urges voters to carefully consider these four local ballot questions, and recommends adoption of two, and rejection of two other, Charter amendments for the following reasons:
Question A asks voters to re-arrange the schedule– and in many ways tilt a balance of power– for drafting the annual budget by the County Executive and review and deliberations by citizens and the County Council. In essence, the proposal gives the Executive more time to draft her budget while citizens and the County Council get two fewer weeks than under the current schedule.
The Charter amendment would allow the County Executive to delay submission of her budget to the Council from the current March 1 until April 1 each year. That gives the County Executive an extra month to prepare her budget. (A separate Charter amendment, Question B, on the ballot would extend by two weeks the timeframe for the Council to review her budget, from May 31 until June 15. But it still amounts to a net loss of two weeks for the Council and citizens to review her budget.)
The Charter already establishes a strong County Executive form of government with a relatively weak County Council. Virtually the only power the Council has is to reduce the Executiveâ€™s spending proposals. But Question A would further tilt the balance of power toward the Executive and, of greatest concern, diminish the role and ability of citizens to have their voices heard in the critical budget process.
Unlike the county executive, under the Charter the County Council must go through a time-consuming process of public budget hearings with individual department heads, worksessions of the Council, formal public hearings for citizens, and legislation adoption meetings. In addition, for the past two years the Council has appointed a Citizensâ€™ Budget Advisory Panel to examine the budget and make recommendations to the Council.
When County Executive Tari Moore first proposed this, and several other, changes to the countyâ€™s Charter several months ago, Cecil Times published a commentary opposing this shift giving the executive more time and citizens and the County Council less time to review and weigh in on crucial spending and related taxation decisions.
[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2014/07/cecil-county-exec-proposes-charter-changes-to-give-her-more-time-and-a-heavy-hammer-on-budget-cuts-time-for-county-council-citizen-input/ ]
Moore subsequently insisted that she did not intend a â€śpower grabâ€ť and was only seeking a more efficient way to produce a budget– especially when Annapolis goes down to the legislative wire in early April with state spending decisions, and possible new mandates to be dumped on the counties.
And the county administration has cited other Charter counties in Maryland where the County Executive has a budget schedule similar to what is being proposed in Question A. However, Montgomery Countyâ€”the stateâ€™s largest countyâ€”that was cited by the county administration also requires the Capital Budget (for construction projects) to be submitted to the County Council in early Januaryâ€” giving the executive there much less time than Cecilâ€™s executive now gets to produce that important component of local spending priorities. Currently, both the operating and capital budgets are presented at the same time in Cecil.
The Cecil County Council consists of what is supposed to be part-time members, paid a modest $25,000 a year, with no benefits and no individual staff aidesâ€”unlike some of the other larger Charter counties cited, such as Montgomery County, where Councilors are full-time employees paid well over $100,000 a year, and with full-time staff aides assigned to individual Councilors to assist on budget and other legislative issues.
Furthermore, most Cecil County residents have to travel long distances to jobs outside the county, with little time to spare for speed-reading complex budget documents or attending afternoon County Council meetings with county department heads for detailed review of individual agency budgets.
While department head budget meetings with the County Council are generally audio taped for citizen review later, many areas of the county lack adequate Internet bandwidth to download such data. And, unlike many other Charter counties with multiple local government information cable TV channels that repeatedly re-broadcast video of public meetings, Cecil County has no such cable TV coverage channels for its government meetings.
And print media news coverage of these departmental budget meetings is spotty at best and generally non-existent. (Over the years, the online-only Cecil Times has often been the only media representative at the critically important Sheriffâ€™s Department budget presentations to the county legislative body.)
Simply put, it takes time to review, digest and weigh alternatives on complex budget issues. The County Executive has a full-time staff of budget, finance, and departmental experts to advise her on how to craft her budget proposal. But the Council and citizens do not have that advantage. The last thing they need is less time to muddle through the process on their own.
The overall balance of power in budget and other policy matters under the county Charter is strongly tilted in the County Executiveâ€™s favor, and that is the way the advisory panel intended to draft the document that was overwhelmingly approved by county voters in 2010.
But the Charter was not designed to reduce the citizensâ€™ voices in county government. Question A would do just that.
So voters should vote â€śAGAINST the Charter Amendmentâ€ť on local Question A on the ballot.
Question B asks voters to approve a Charter change that would make the County Executiveâ€™s budget proposal go into effect automatically if the County Council had not adopted its own version of the budget by June 15 each year. This question works in tandem with Question A, but has merit on its own.
As Cecil County residents know all too well from recent years, the County Council (and its predecessor commissioners form of government) can get tied up in knots, stalled, deadlocked and barely treading water at timesâ€”depending upon the composition of the Council and the attitudes and agendas of individual members.
Question B sets up a virtual political hammer, threatening that if the Council members cannot do their jobs and come to an agreement on a budget, the County Executive gets her way completely. That should be a strong political incentive to the Council to get its act together and come up with its own variations on the budget, which can only be cuts in spending under the Charter. (The Council is not empowered to increase spending in the proposed budget, with the exception of certain mandated educational expenses.)
Setting a deadline for action that has real teeth also guards against the potential local equivalent of a government shutdownâ€”all too reminiscent of federal gridlock in Washington. While the federal government has many more tools and resources to cope with a government shutdown, county government does not have the ability to print more money or juggle huge trust funds. Faced with rising crime and rampant drug problems, do citizens really want to risk the possibility of no money to pay Sheriffâ€™s deputies for some time while the Council dithers on a budget?
But there is also a potential political downside to this question: a County Council with backbones made of feathers could simply abdicate the panelâ€™s budget responsibility, refuse to do anything, and simply dump on the County Executive all budget responsibility and accountability. This scenario is possible, but we think unlikely, especially if the Council members want to retain their seat at the next election by showing they can do the job they were elected to do.
Especially if Question A is rejected by the voters, and the Council and citizens are given sufficient time to review the budget and explore spending alternatives, then adoption of Question B becomes all the more palatable and deserving of voter support.
So voters should vote â€śFOR the Charter Amendmentâ€ť on local Question B.
Question C asks voters to approve a change allowing budget amendments submitted by the County Executive to be approved by a simple majority vote of the County Council, which may if it chooses hold a public hearing before acting on the budget item. Now, the Council has to go through a lengthy full-blown legislative process, including a required public hearing, even on rather modest changes in the budgetâ€”including accounting for grants received from state or federal officials.
The current system is cumbersome and time-consuming and, especially in the case of grants for a specific program, can delay the availability of money to support needed projects or services. If a proposed budget amendment is controversial the Council could still go through the full-blown hearing and legislative process before voting on the proposal.
In the interests of greater efficiency, and getting grant funds into service promptly, voters should vote â€śFOR the Charter Amendmentâ€ť on local Question C.
Question D asks voter to reduce the amount of insurance/bonds covering the countyâ€™s top fiscal officersâ€”the County Executive and the Director of Financeâ€”in the handling of taxpayer funds. The Charter sets a proportionate requirement for the insurance/bond equal to at least 2 percent of the countyâ€™s budget, while the proposed change would set a fixed amount that â€śequals or exceeds $500,000.â€ť
The purpose of the change, according to the county administration, is to save money on the premium costs of the insurance bond.
The current County Executive, Tari Moore, and the current Director of Finance, Winston Robinson, are public servants of unquestioned personal financial integrity and debating the wisdom of the proposed Charter change should not be viewed as anything negative against them personally.
But with a $178.4 million operating budget in the current fiscal year, a $500,000 insurance policy could leave taxpayers vulnerable to some chicanery in the future. Some future less principled official might misappropriate county funds, it might take some time to find out money is missing, and taxpayers would be left in the lurch for any losses above the $500,000 insurance policy.
(In the days of an independently elected county Treasurer, Pam Howard spotted irregularities in one departmentâ€™s spending and accounting practices and turned over evidence to the Stateâ€™s Attorneyâ€™s office which prosecuted the case, which involved a relatively small amount of money.)
If the county administration wanted to save some money on the premiums, a higher threshold should have been specified in the proposed Charter amendment. The wording on the ballot question does leave the door open to some unspecified figure that could â€śexceedâ€ť $500,000. But since the County Council lacks the power to increase spending in the budget and can only cut spending proposed by the executive, the five-member Council could not boost the insurance bond amount and premiums on its own if this Charter change is approved.
And by proposing the wording of the Charter amendment as is, the executive has indicated she thinks $500,000 coverage is enough.
But like fire insurance on your house, which you hope never to have to collect upon but still pay the premiums so your family is protected in case of calamity, this is one of those cases where it is better to be safe than sorry.
So we recommend that citizens vote â€śAGAINST the Charter Amendmentâ€ť on Question D.