Cecil County Council in Budget Home Stretch to Freeze Tax Rate; Schools Off Cutting Block but Some Wonder Why

May 27, 2015

The Cecil County Council crawled into the home stretch of their budget deliberations on Tuesday, with another round of spending cuts that put them within about $146,000 of their goal to prevent a two-cent property tax increase proposed by County Executive Tari Moore.

At one point, County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) proposed a new $250,000 cut in the Sheriff’s Department budget, including an earlier Council-endorsed cut of $89,000 to eliminate riot safety gear, “and whatever else he can find” to cut in his budget. Several Council members were uncomfortable with such a steep cut but Hodge made it clear he was willing to sacrifice law enforcement funds in order to give the full spending request in the budget for the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS).

“I don’t like micromanaging the Sheriff,” said Councilor George Patchell (R-4), who also questioned a previous Hodge proposal to eliminate a position of director of the Sheriff Department’s Community Corrections program. (That program is currently headed by former Sheriff Barry Janney.)

“I would rather not cut public safety,” commented Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2).

“It’s a way of getting around a cut in the public schools,” Hodge replied.

Indeed, through several weeks of budget deliberations by the Council, every time a line item came up on the budget list pertaining to the schools, there was silence and the panel moved on to the next non-CCPS item on the list.

Finally, on Tuesday Patchell raised the question nobody else on the Council was willing to ask, or answer: “The elephant in the room is Cecil County Public Schools and their budget.”

“You’re going to have to be willing to sacrifice quality of life issues if you’re not willing to” even look at the CCPS budget, Patchell said. “We’re nitpicking, $1,000 here and there,” on every departmental budget, he said, and “we are exhausting our possibilities” while not even looking at any potential savings in the largest single department of county spending.

Patchell’s remarks were greeted with the silence that has greeted the schools issue throughout the budget. Indeed, the one CCPS line item that has been vigorously, heatedly and repeatedly discussed is the Council majority’s wish to spend $250,000 to repair/refurbish school tennis courts by shifting the accounting for the expense to bonds and out of the “small capital projects” segment of the Fiscal 2016 operating budget so the costs will not be counted in this year’s spending plan and its companion property tax rate.

The Council is also looking to shift another $282,000 for expansion of high-speed broadband internet among county, school and library buildings from the “small capital” account to bond funds.

County Finance Director Winston Robinson has steadfastly opposed those proposals, and Hodge and some other members of the Council have pushed back hard against him. “We need some cooperation,” Hodge told Robinson on Tuesday. “We could do it if you’ll go along with it.” At one point, Hodge shouted at Robinson, “Want me to yell it louder?”

The largest single budget cut tentatively supported by the County Council so far is a $400,000 reduction in county spending for employees’ health care. Moore’s budget had, in effect, traded a $3.1 million boost in county spending for healthcare for a decision to provide no cost-of-living pay raises or “step” pay increases for employees.

The Council’s previously agreed upon healthcare spending cut would force the executive either to pass on $400,000 of the multi-million dollar higher costs to employees or potentially incur county liability for serious illness treatment costs beyond a catastrophic insurance policy’s limits.

That proposed Council spending cut has been a source of significant grumbling among county employees. And some of that concern spilled over into Tuesday’s budget discussions, as some employees pointed out that CCPS employees were getting cost of living and other pay boosts while enrolled in a separate health care system that would not be affected by the Council’s spending cut proposals.

“We’re hammering Cecil County employees,” observed Patchell, while “others are getting better benefits” and a cost of living pay rise.

Patchell was also a leading voice questioning expenditures by the county’s Department of Emergency Services (DES) for a new “P-25” emergency radio communications system, with an initial expenditure of $2.3 million in Fiscal 2016 followed by several years of additional expenditures. Patchell demanded a firm answer from DES head Richard Brooks on the final, bottom line costs of the project—which, in two earlier appearances before the Council, had varied from $11 million to $20 to $25 million.

So, on Tuesday, Brooks appeared again before the Council and told members they should “lose” his earlier $20 to $25 million cost figure, which he said was “projected to get us to a new radio system.” Instead, Brooks promised, he could assure council members that by spending $11 million over the next three years, that the county’s emergency communications system would be viable for the next 10 years.

Brooks’ contended that the existing emergency communications system would be obsolete and no repair parts available within the next 18 months unless a shift to the “P25” system was initiated.

Patchell, who serves as the Council’s representative on the county’s volunteer fire association board, said the lack of inter-active communications between fire companies and other emergency responders such as state police is a major public safety concern. And the lack of repair parts for the existing system was a serious problem, he said. So, after having Brooks repeat his bottom line figure of $11 million twice, Patchell agreed to let it go forward in the interest of public safety.

“Public safety is the reason we are here,” observed Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1). McCarthy had also advocated earlier for fellow council members to re-consider their cut of $89,000 for riot gear protective equipment for Sheriff’s deputies, saying that deputies “put their lives on the line” for citizens and should have safety equipment to protect their lives.

In line-by-line budget cuts on Tuesday, the County Council came up with another $297,249 in spending cuts from Moore’s budget proposal. On top of earlier tentative spending reductions, the Council’s tally now stands at $1,599,343 in cuts to Moore’s budget. And, assuming the tennis courts and broadband expenses can be shifted off to bond funds, that leaves about a $146,000 gap to reach the Council’s goal of cutting $2.27 million in order to freeze the current county property tax rate.

The county property tax rate has been frozen for the past two years at $0.9907 per $100 of assessed property valuation. But Moore’s budget would have increased that amount to $1.01 in the new budget year beginning 7/1/2015.

Throughout the County Council’s budget deliberations, Hodge has maintained the panel’s top priority is to void Moore’s property tax increase and continue the current tax rate. But, in addition, Moore’s budget imposed a host of higher fees—including trash dumping fees and a new tax on property sales—that the Council also wants to address but, in practical terms, may be unable to counter-act in the limited time left for action.

The County Council is slated to meet again in Elkton on Thursday 5/27/2015 to consider additional spending cuts to reach their no property tax boost goal. But time is running out before the planned final date for council adoption of a county budget on 6/2/2015.

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11 Responses to Cecil County Council in Budget Home Stretch to Freeze Tax Rate; Schools Off Cutting Block but Some Wonder Why

  1. Ron Lobos on May 28, 2015 at 7:29 am

    I believe that George Patchell is taking the bull by the horns rather than following the herd like others. He recognizes the elephant in the room and is the only one, up until now, willing to address it.

    Every department in Cecil County who is experiencing budget cuts this year can thank the bloated CCPS budget (wish list) for their cuts. Patchell made a good point in that school employees receive cost of living increases and other increases while enjoying a better health care program than county employees.

    Ask yourself something. If we didn’t give the CCPS their requested wish list this year, what would happen to the students? I would venture to say nothing. The students who were going to college would still go and each and every one of those students who graduate would still be headed in the same direction even if those $100/000+ per year Administrators didn’t get their cost of living increase.

    On the issue of riot gear, why is it that we don’t enter into an agreement with Harford County to borrow their riot gear when we need it. Riots are not something we have experienced in Cecil County and we are only 25 minutes from Harford County. This only makes sense.

  2. Almost Heaven on May 28, 2015 at 8:41 am

    “every time a line item came up on the budget list pertaining to the schools, there was silence and the panel moved on to the next non-CCPS item on the list”

    What is wrong with these so called Republicans? The biggest part of the budget is the bloated CCPS portion, and they want to whistle past the grave yard.

    “We’re hammering Cecil County employees,” observed Patchell, while “others are getting better benefits” and a cost of living pay rise.

    Pay raises for Common Core crap. This is the same crap, different shovel.

    Instead of doing the right thing, these Republicans are simply buying teacher votes with taxpayer money.

    Their not for smaller government.

    They’re Republicans in Name Only.aka dirty rotten Democrats in drag

  3. Jeannette H on May 28, 2015 at 9:56 am

    The public school system is in need of some real close scrutiny. Why is it so difficult to comprehend that there is a real need to cut expenses at every level. Same with the schools. We all know that this is Moore’s special pet and she will give in to whatever they want.

    Now is the time for the County Council to do their job even better and listen to a new Council member who understands the pain that the citizens are crying about. Why do we have such a school group hijacking the process of cutting costs?

    • Ron Lobos on May 28, 2015 at 11:46 am

      Jeanette, as County Executive, there is no room for special pets. Special pets create division in government. In this case, they also have a part in having our elected officials turn a deaf ear to the need for educational reform. We are about to find out which of our elected officials are problem solvers and which of them are enablers (to the CCPS in particular.)

  4. SchoolMarm on May 28, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    Please–just because one thinks, but does not know yet for certain, that the totally Republican council might support education priorities, it is decided they should not be reelected and are actually “dirty rotten Democrats in drag”? At least that leaves the female member out of that situation. These people were elected to govern, to meet the diverse needs of the citizens. Not my needs. Not yours.

    Democracy means getting a say, not getting one’s way. It is apparent to this reader, who is not in drag or dirty or rotten, that the slight tax raise is necessary to meet these growing needs. There is no such thing as small government; that is just a code word for “cut other’s people’s priorities,” among other hidden meanings.

    And as to children still going to college, the academically talented student is never the real problem in education funding. It is the other children and their myriad talents and deficiencies who suffer when pubic education funds are cut. You think this is about the teachers: education is about the children.

    • Ron Lobos on May 29, 2015 at 6:42 am

      Dear SchoolMarm, you must understand that even if the increase in the school budget were turned down, the funding for FY16, based on Maintenance of Effort, would still be increased over last year. So your statement that public education funds will be cut is simply untrue. Students make up about 15% of the county population but we contribute 42% of our tax revenue to them.

      Also realize that nothing is stopping you from sending more money out of your own pocket to the county to support your cause. All too often, special interests ask for a greater share of the pot but want the money to come out of other peoples pockets. I encourage you to lead by example and have like minded people contribute their own money to their own cause. That would be prudent.

  5. Mike R on May 28, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    You are joking I hope School Marm. This is about the teachers and their salaries and benefits package. Please don’t try to minimize the increases in pay and benefits which they feel entitled to. Why should they get additional funds for programs that are discriminatory. Moore seems to be more concerned about the teachers than the Cecil County government employees. Cut the common core BS and start really teaching these kids if that is the true intent.

  6. BobbyG on May 28, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Ok Robert Hodge, now I know why there are so many smiling faces in your own companies office. How many years do the County employees go without any increases? Let’s nail them in the only good thing in their benefit package. Of course after doing all of the new responsibilities over the years, trying to get a part time job to help pay for their increase will probably push them over the edge.

    George Patchell, please keep up the great support in a reasonable manner. Maybe some of the others will put their words into print. Can’t wait for the teachers on facebook to be so happy for their snow days while county employees have to use vacations days or slug it through the ice and snow to the office.

  7. Almost Heaven on May 29, 2015 at 5:03 am

    Go back to School Marm, and learn your history. American government is a Republican form of government, not a Democratic mob rule one. These people took an oath to preserve protect and defend the Constitution, we can govern ourselves thank you very much.

    These elected representatives are making it extremely difficult for hard working people to pay their bills when they break their promises to cut taxes, take our money through property tax increase and waste it on a failed, unproven, never voted on Common Core program of indoctrination.

    Children are NOT being educated they are being indoctrinated to believe stealing is acceptable when the government says so with regard to property taxes, just read Ms. Devine’s … emails to CCPS staff about which “friends of education” they should vote for in the last election for proof.

    CCPS employees do NOT deserve a pay raise for indoctrinating our children with Common Core. CCPS is not a sacred cow, and must have their budget scrutinized, and down sized, just like the other departments.

  8. Harold McCanick on May 29, 2015 at 8:42 am

    Dear Ms.Marm,

    You are misleading on so many layers. The most glaring is your explanation of Democracy. Noble yes,but you described a REPRESENTATIVE REPUBLIC. Democracy is described as MAJORITY rule. Another socialist deception you give is “no such thing as small government”. WRONG-This country was founded on it. I am reminded of the “scariest words in the English language-I am with the government and I am here to help.”

    Growing needs, other people’s priorities and slight tax increase? School enrollment is in decline, what about my priorities (I am an unsubsidized student) and WE ARE TAXED TOO MUCH ALREADY! …By the looks of your name you are either on a school district payroll or a pensioner which is fine and dandy unless you are preventing others from retiring which IS the case.

    P.S.You are more than welcome to lead by example and contribute more than required to the county coffers. Hopefully in the future there will be a line on tax forms for this purpose. We’ll be able to track what it is really”about.” Have a nice day.

  9. Sid Coleman on May 29, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    THANK YOU George Patchell! CCPS needs to reduce it’s top heavy administration and come up with some real cuts that don’t affect students or teachers. Some of the things could start with not following federally mandated programs and working locally to come up with better solutions. Just because they are “Told” they have to do something that costs money, doesn’t mean they should do it if it doesn’t make sense. Send all ESL kids to one school (Like vo-tech)-you won’t need as many ESL staff! Reduce the number of ‘Booth St” staff (again-WHY do we need so many psychologists on staff??) Cut the fat at the top!

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