Cecil County Council Fine-tunes Budget: Tax Boost Killed, Tennis Courts Out, Some Cop Gear In

May 29, 2015

The Cecil County Council reached its goal on Thursday to block a property tax increase proposed by the County Executive, with extra money still available for possible last-minute additional tax relief for citizens or lowering healthcare expenses paid by county employees.

After several hours of often chaotic number-crunching and cross-talk at an afternoon meeting on 5/28/15, Councilors put off final decisions until Tuesday, when a morning worksession is slated to put finishing touches on the Fiscal 2016 spending plan before formal adoption of the budget that is scheduled for Tuesday evening.

At this point, the County Council has reached tentative agreement on cutting $3,077,159 out of Moore’s proposed $184,785,276 operating budget. From the outset of the panel’s deliberations, most councilors’ top priority has been to kill Moore’s proposed more than two-cent increase on the property tax rate. To do that, the Council had to cut about $2.27 million, and by the end of the day had more than reached that goal.

But with some extra money from their cuts lying on the table, the Council could still re-consider its biggest cut– $400,000 for higher healthcare costs for county employees—or potentially consider more tax relief for citizens, either on the property tax rate or mitigating some of the County Executive’s total elimination of a discount for early payment of property taxes.

And as part of the council’s deliberations, members agreed on Thursday to re-visit some earlier spending cuts and restored some funds for several programs—at the request of some last-minute “guests” appearing before the County Council with urgent appeals for re-consideration.

County Executive Tari Moore, making her first appearance before the Council on the budget since she proposed her plan April 1, pleaded for boosting animal control funds and more money for employee healthcare. Two senior Sheriff’s Department officials pitched for protective riot gear for deputies. And Wayne Tome, appearing on behalf of volunteer fire companies, made a show-and-tell presentation of heart monitor equipment seeking restoration of $58,000 that had been cut for maintenance of the sophisticated devices. (At the end of the day, Tome came out the winner with full restoration, riot gear was funded in part, and some animal control money was restored.)

But Moore’s proposed increase of $3.1 million in spending for employee healthcare still faced a $400,000 cut, despite her plea that “I think it’s only fair that we take care of our employees.”

In her budget, Moore also proposed $720,000 for animal control—the same amount that the county’s current and controversial contractor, A Buddy for Life, Inc.—is receiving under a three year contract that expires 12/21/15, halfway through the Fiscal 2016 budget year. The Council had cut that figure to $600,000—but the Buddies would still get their $60,000 per month fee for six months or a total of $360,000. That would leave just $240,000 or $40,000 a month for whatever contractor or entity might assume animal control duties for the second half of the budget year.

“There are many things that are happening” and “a lot of discussions” about the future of animal control in the county, Moore said. She refused to discuss any plans with the council but said she needed the “flexibility to do what we need to do.” She said her administration was working on a new “request for proposal” to solicit bidders for a new animal control contract.

Winston Robinson, the county Director of Finance, said, “The solution is being worked on” and that if a “new vendor” came forward it would likely have “start-up costs.”

When the old “Three Amigos” majority of the County Commissioners approved a last-minute contract with the Buddies and suddenly extended it from an 18-month pact that was put out for bid to a three-year exclusive contract, the Amigos gave the Buddies at least $10,000 cash in start-up money and purchased two trucks at taxpayer expense that are leased to the Buddies for $1 a year each. Those costs were on top of the contract paying the Buddies $720,000 a year.

(Cecil Times has obtained information and documentation showing that Moore and aides have traveled to at least three out-of-county animal facilities with government-operated animal control services and held talks with an out-of-state facility. However, Moore and aides have not visited the local Cecil County SPCA/Eastern Shore Animal League which has a fully operational animal shelter in Chesapeake City.) County budget officials said that for Fiscal 2012, the last full year in which the SPCA handled animal control for the county, the cost was $620,000.

“What kind of animal control are we going to get,” inquired Councilor George Patchell (R-4)

“We have no idea,” said Council President Robert Hodge (R-5)

Councilor Dan Scheckenburger (R-3) was reluctant to grant Moore’s request to restore the full $120,000 the council had cut from animal control spending, saying he wanted to “keep the pressure on them to come up with a better solution.” So he proposed, and other councilors agreed, to restore half– $60,000—of the money, leaving a total of $660,000.

Hodge said that if the county executive comes up with a new plan for animal control, she could come to the council and ask for a mid-year spending increase. He said the extra money would come from the county’s “fund balance” reserve funds. But Hodge declared, “I’m gonna vote no for the record” on Schneckenburger’s motion.

Another controversial Council spending cut– $89,000 to provide riot gear to protect Sheriff’s deputies—was also re-considered after Major Gerry Widdoes, the agency’s chief deputy or second-ranking leader, and Major George Stanko, head of the law enforcement division, appeared before the panel on Thursday to urge support for the gear. Widdoes said the department had found some funds within its current budget to buy some riot “sticks” but those rather simple devices were not enough to provide adequate protection. The Sheriff was also seeking anti-ballistic helmets that could save the life of an officer shot in the head by a criminal and anti-riot helmets with face shields that could withstand rocks but not bullets, at a remaining cost of $72,000.

Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) proposed cutting public works funds to pay for the gear but his motion failed for lack of a second. Then McCarthy came up with $35,000 by cutting the County Council’s own budget for outside professional services that would enable the council to hire independent experts to review the merits of proposals by the executive branch. And Patchell won a $1,000 elimination of the county’s “sister city” program to add to the pot, providing a total of $36,000 to begin purchases of the riot gear for some deputies.

Patchell also came up with the money to restore funds for the cardiac monitors by eliminating all funds for a proposed county website upgrade and money for a human resources salary comparability study. Patchell had previously won cuts to those two items and his successful motion on Thursday made an additional $30,000 cut in each program.

Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) endorsed the cardiac monitor maintenance funds, saying, “If they show up at my house, I want it working.”

Patchell also won Council approval to kill Moore’s proposed increase in a monthly tax on trailers or manufactured housing located in parks where the residents do not own the land. That will mean a $42,000 cost savings for those residents in Fiscal 2016.

Probably the most discussed issue throughout weeks of County Council budget discussions has been the proposal by the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) to repair/rehabilitate two tennis courts and a basketball court. At virtually every meeting, a majority of members advocated shifting the costs—estimated at $255,000—out of the “small capital projects” component of the operating budget that counts on calculations of the property tax rate. Instead, they wanted to shift the expense into medium to long-term bond-funded projects.

Finally, the Council threw in the tennis towel after Robinson—for the umpteenth time—insisted that the projects did not pass muster in its scope to be considered a long-term capital improvement that could legally be funded by bonds. Schneckenburger made the motion to delete the projects from the operating budget, with all but one member agreeing. Bowlsbey said she was voting “no, because I previously agreed to support the school board.”

(Robinson did concede on one other demand from the Council to shift money to bond-funded projects, a broadband high-speed Internet services project to install fiber optic lines and related upgrades for county school, library, and government buildings. So about $580,000 would be dropped from the operating budget, he said, and the county executive will submit a budget amendment on 7/1/15 to shift the expense to the capital budget.)

Most members of the Council have steadfastly refused even to speak about any CCPS program or spending item—other than trying to find budget devices to pay for the tennis courts—with the exception of Patchell, who has questioned the propriety of the Council refusing even to discuss the CCPS budget.

The early and heavy pressure on Council members to commit to full support for Moore’s budget for the schools may have won CCPS the budget battle but, in political and public relations terms, could cost the schools in the long term. Even though the tennis courts eventually fell by the wayside, throughout the budget process their cost has been a sore point of contrast for other programs facing budget cuts—especially in the law enforcement community.

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10 Responses to Cecil County Council Fine-tunes Budget: Tax Boost Killed, Tennis Courts Out, Some Cop Gear In

  1. Jeannette H on May 29, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    I am very pleased to see that the two new county council members are taking action on some very needed cost cutting in this proposed platinum budget of Tari Moore.

    It continues to amaze me at the on going game that Moore is playing with animal control. Let’s face it, animal control is not rocket science. What kind of animal control are we going to get? Good question, why was she not prepared to answer. Wow, blows my mind that so much time, energy and taxpayer money is being spent on something so simple as animals. I’m no expert but I do know that what goes on in other counties in all likelihood does not transcend to Cecil County. We had a good animal control group in the SPCA until Smigiel/Carletti and their followers fabricated stories and now, isn’t it funny that it’s come back to hit them (Carletti/Callahan) straight in the face.

    What kind of care are the animals at Buddy’s getting, it’s horrible. I’ve been there, I’ve seen, I’ve smelled, it’s disgusting. Pitbulls everywhere, and sick cats; if you listen to them talk they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. NOT!!! So Tari Moore, you had better have a good plan that does not include Buddy’s and their band of clowns.

  2. C Jayne Mitchell-Werbrich on May 29, 2015 at 9:48 pm

    “What kind of animal control are we going to get,” inquired Councilor George Patchell (R-4). Well, Councilor Patchell one thing is for sure– anything would be better than A Buddy for Life! Cecil County needs caring and competent people to run animal control. I am happy to hear Tari Moore is back from her vacation. Hopefully she is well rested and ready to roll up her sleeves and do the right thing.

  3. Bob Willick on May 30, 2015 at 10:45 am

    I’d like to thank George Patchell for speaking up about the school budget before falling in line with the other spineless so-called conservative council members who have decided that touching the CCPS budget is off limits. It’s good to know someone has your back before they stick a knife in it.

    • RDF 001 on June 1, 2015 at 8:01 am

      Knifing people in the back is the Campaign for Liberty standard operating procedure .

      • Almost Heaven on June 3, 2015 at 7:06 am

        Seems to me these RINO’s, save Mr. Patchell, stabbed every parent with a child in CCPS in the back with one knife, and the taxpayers with another. We are now stuck with increased maintenance of effort funding forever since there is no difference apparently between electing Martin O’Malley/Obama Democrats, and a Cecil County Republican in name only.

        What a bunch of spineless cowards they are for not even talking about the waste, fraud and abuse in the CCPS budget.

        I find it very disturbing that these so called Republicans went back, and forth ball like a tennis ball over a CCPS tennis court while blindly surrendering control of the schools to the Federal Government with its disgusting, creepy Common Core curriculum which they swallowed hook line and sinker.

        The 2016, CCPS tennis court budget should forever be remembered as the budget where so called Republicans in Cecil County ran the white flag of surrender to the federal government up the pole, and totally lost any sense of local educational decision making.

        No part of any taxpayer budget should EVER go without public scrutiny. Basically, these Counselors were too cowardice, and lazy to do their jobs. We need to replace them with real Republican’s who will do their homework instead of copying Ms. Devine’s.

        Absolutely pathetic!

        • RDF 001 on June 3, 2015 at 4:12 pm

          I encourage you to run for office and put your time where your mouth is.

          • Almost Heaven on June 3, 2015 at 6:23 pm

            I encourage you to be honest, register as a big spending Democrat, and put your RINO costume in the trash along with your mouth.

          • RDF 001 on June 5, 2015 at 2:50 pm

            Almost: Campaign for Liberty is a RINO outfit. Wake up and smell the manure.

        • tina shatp on June 4, 2015 at 6:10 am

          Schneck volleyed the ball to cut the 250k, how is that not voting? I would also point out Schneck and Patchell had 6 months to be able to review and totally understand all budgets. Considering that, next year i would suspect they would be better equipped to evaluate all budgets. It is my personal experience that there is so much of this process that we as average budget people do not know, and are not privy to so much that goes into the process.

          The council did not raise taxes, some fees will hit a small select group, but over all they did what they set out to do.

          • Almost Heaven on June 5, 2015 at 9:24 am

            tina since when is a fee NOT a tax with lipstick?

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