Cecil County Council’s Honeymoon with Exec is Over; Big Budget Cuts Loom in Bid to void Moore’s Tax Boosts; Citizens Speak on Budget

May 13, 2015


The budget honeymoon between the Cecil County Council and County Executive Tari Moore—which lasted for two years of minimal cuts in her budget proposals—is over. The Council is weighing a broad array of spending cuts, from big-ticket items to budgetary pocket change, to avoid or reduce Moore’s two-cent property tax rate rise and a host of higher fees in her Fiscal 2016 budget plan.

The opening salvo in the Council’s campaign came at a morning worksession on Tuesday 5/12/15, at which the Council reached preliminary, non-binding agreements to cut funds for animal control, eliminate riot gear acquisition for county Sheriff’s deputies, and reject money for a multi-million dollar, multi-year radio system project for the Department of Emergency Services.

Also discussed, but not agreed upon, were proposals to combine the administration of the county’s Detention Center and Community Corrections program—in an apparent bid to eliminate the community corrections post currently held by Barry Janney, the former county Sheriff. And Council member Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) suggested closing the Woodlawn trash transfer station, while another Councilor, George Patchell (R-4), warned such a step would trigger a major outcry from citizens.

County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) said the Council is trying to come up with $2.27 million in budget cuts to prevent Moore’s property tax increase proposals from going forward.

The tone and mood of the Council now is far different from the past two budget cycles of Moore’s administration as County Executive in which the Council nibbled at her spending plans with a few relatively minor reductions. However, during the past two years, Moore dug deeply into county reserve funds accumulated over past decades—the “unassigned fund balance”– to pay for her spending plans so she could simultaneously freeze the property tax rate.

But now the availability of such fiscal devices is more limited and Moore has proposed both a property tax rate boost and new fees—including a new property transfer tax that could boost county fees on the cost of buying a $300,000 home from $10 to $1,500. And another difference is that there are now two new members of the County Council who are going through their first budget process.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday evening, about 50 citizens spoke at a public hearing of the County Council, held at Elkton High School, on Moore’s budget plans. A substantial contingent—wearing red tee-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Stand Up 4 Public Schools”—advocated for full funding of the schools. (Although the hearing was supposed to be limited to citizens, county schools superintendent Dr. D’Ette Devine spoke in support of her budget, which was mostly fully funded by Moore.) Another contingent supported full funding for the county library system.

But there was also a substantial segment of speakers demanding tax relief and cutting spending to avoid a property tax increase, including members of the local ultra-conservative “Campaign for Liberty” political group, business leaders, and average citizens and retirees living on fixed incomes. Moore did not attend the citizens’ hearing, a fact multiple speakers observed negatively.

Ron Lobos, a member of the local “Patriots” fiscal conservative group, commented, “I’m a little bit disappointed that Tari Moore is not here—after all, it’s her budget.” He also questioned the budget allocations for the county schools.

The business community is “extremely disappointed” with Moore’s budget, said Mario Gangemi, vice-chairman of the Cecil Business Leaders for Better Government—a group that had supported Moore in her political campaign for County Executive. “There are still opportunities to reduce expenses” in Moore’s budget, he said, and the County Council must show the local business community and potential new employers in the area that “the county is open for business.”

Norman Wehner, a local real estate business operator and youth group leader, complained that Moore’s budget was “clearly targeting one industry to pay the costs of the rest of the county” with her new property transfer tax.

The show of strength by the county’s schools advocates has already had an impact on the County Council, where on various recent occasions members have said they do not want to cut Moore’s schools budget allocations. Indeed, at the Tuesday worksession, when the schools operating budget came up, Councilors quickly moved on to the next item on their list with no discussion of possible schools’ spending cuts.

So far, all the Council is looking at in the schools budget is ways to shift spending for repairing tennis courts out of the new budget into long or medium-term bonds so that the costs do not affect the Fiscal 2016 bottom line and the impact on the property tax rate. County fiscal officials explained at length that such “maintenance” repairs do not constitute appropriate long-term capital improvement expenses that could legally be charged to bond debts. But several Councilors seem determined to go ahead with tennis court repairs without paying for them in the short-term budget that counts on the property tax rate.

While the Council was so concerned with finding ways to pay for school tennis courts, a majority indicated they do not want to provide the county’s Sheriff’s deputies with so-called “riot gear”—including anti-ballistic helmets that could save the lives of officers shot in the head by criminals. New Sheriff Scott Adams had asked for $89,000 to provide such helmets, plus shields, special batons and riot-duty face-mask helmets for his officers, who currently have no riot gear although such equipment has been standard-issue for many law enforcement agencies for decades.

Councilor Schneckenburger said that the fact that the sheriff’s department is currently under-staffed, due to attrition, means that they couldn’t send any staff to help out during the recent riots in Baltimore. He focused on the Baltimore riot situation, rather than the potential for violence in Cecil County against local deputies. In fact, Adams had proposed getting riot gear for local use long before the Baltimore riots.

[SEE Cecil Times report on the Sheriff’s riot gear request here: http://ceciltimes.com/2015/04/cecil-county-budget-sheriffs-deputies-lack-riot-gear-short-staffed-unable-to-help-baltimore-cops-in-riot/ ]

Councilor Patchell at one point suggested using the county’s casino (“VLT”—video lottery terminal) grant income from the state to pay for equipping deputies with such gear. (But Moore is proposing using much more of that money—over $300,000– for the state/county- funded Health Department to pay for drug addict treatment programs and their supervisory staff overhead costs.)

County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) agreed with Schneckenburger to eliminate the funds for riot gear spending for the deputies and Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) went along with them.

Hodge also proposed cutting funds for the Sheriff’s Department- supervised Detention Center and Community Corrections programs, suggesting eliminating one “major” level supervisor and consolidating the jail and community corrections oversight. That was a clear shot at former county Sheriff Barry Janney, who is now supervising the Community Corrections operation.

Hodge insisted his proposed budget cut and consolidation “has nothing to do with the gentleman who is currently in that position today.” But Hodge’s proposal would kill the community corrections supervisor slot and put the entire program under the Detention Center administration.

Sheriff Adams has previously outlined an ambitious program to expand Community Corrections, in co-operation with the county’s Drug Court and a possible national charity’s grant fund program, to divert drug offenders from the jail to community corrections drug treatment options. (For a variety of state regulatory and grant funding reasons, the two programs have operated separately but co-operatively in the past.)

Hodge also took the initiative to cut funds for the county’s animal control program, with a befuddled series of proposals that initially cut $100,000 but then, after securing a majority agreement on that figure, he muttered an additional $20,000 funding cut before most council members heard it and it was unclear if others agreed with his additional cut plan.

The county is currently spending $720,000 a year, or $60,000 a month, on a contract for animal control services with A Buddy for Life, Inc., a former Delaware rescue group that won a three-year contract from the old “Three Amigos” political machine dominating the then-Board of County Commissioners.

Moore’s new budget proposed the same amount—although the Buddies’ contract expires half-way through the upcoming Fiscal 2016 budget year—and there would have to be a new request for proposal or an extension of the current contract to continue for the second half of the budget year.

So Hodge’s apparent proposal of a $120,000 spending cut means that—due to the current contract with the Buddies, if Moore continues to refuse to cancel it early—that the Buddies would get its regular $60,000 a month payment through 12/31/15. BUT for the second half of the year, whatever group took over animal control for the rest of the year would be cut significantly, to $40,000 per month for the remainder of the budget year. (That is $20,000 a month less than the Buddies are now getting from taxpayers.)

Hodge justified his spending cut because of the questionable process under which the Buddy for Life group got approval of a three–year contract from the old Board of Comissioners in their final minutes of existence before the shift to Charter government.

“There was not a fair and reasonable bidding process,” on the animal control contract, Hodge said, adding that the old majority of the then-commissioners was determined to give a quick contract to the Buddies before their political term in office expired.

But Hodge did not offer detailed justification for his cuts, despite an increased mandatory county-supported “hold” period for stray animals from five days to eight days under the current contract and a new animal law. The figure proposed by Hodge would take the county’s support of care and capture of stray animals back to about Fiscal 2009, when the volume of stray animals was far lower and the county only paid for five days of care for strays.

Meanwhile, a key concern by the County Council was suggestions to “just say no” to a huge $20 to $25 million plan by county Department of Emergency Services chief Richard Brooks to begin a multi-year expenditure plan for a new “P25” emergency radio system. Although Brooks sought just an initial expenditure of about $2.2 million in the Fiscal 2016 budget, that down payment would have committed the county to moving forward, year after year, to what would ultimately be a huge cost of up to $25 million, councilors said.

Most Councilors said that Brooks had not provided convincing information about the need for such a system, and that by the time it was implemented there were likely more up to date systems that would be more compatible with emergency communications systems already being launched by the state and other regional emergency service providers.

Several Council members expressed concerns that Moore had accepted Brooks’ plans without any detailed public information or hearings about the radio system, which came as a total surprise to most Council members when Brooks showed up at a worksession a week or so ago to advocate for the money.

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12 Responses to Cecil County Council’s Honeymoon with Exec is Over; Big Budget Cuts Loom in Bid to void Moore’s Tax Boosts; Citizens Speak on Budget

  1. Maria Wilson on May 15, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Let me get this straight: Mr. Hoge wants to put the animal control services back to what they cost over six years ago? Yes, we all know that the Buddy for Life group was overpaid, but this article says Hodge’s proposal would take things back to 2009 money after the Buddyfor Life contract expires in December. Have you been to the grocery store lately? Nothing costs now what it did six years ago– be it dog food or people food!

    Just because Tari Moore has decided to over-pay the Buddy people for three years doesn’t mean that anyone else should be penalized. After all, the Buddy people would still get their full $60,000 a month for half of the year. So if we could get cheaper and better services maybe from someone else, they should get screwed so Moore’s ‘buddies’ get their full overpaid amount for half the year? That doesn’t sound fair to me, or fair to the animals who the Buddy people have locked up in wire crates at their so called shelter.

    Maybe somebody needs to look at why the taxpayers are giving over $15,000 a month– from the Buddy rent paid for the kennels– to a retired Cecil County judge who owns the Buddy building. Can you say good ole boys?

  2. Jeannette H on May 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    This animal control charade has gone on long enough. People involved with the Buddy’s group were the driving force in all those lies about the SPCA,that were proved to be false by a state attorney and police. Time to get rid of the Buddy people for animal control and a shelter and get the SPCA back. They were not guilty and yet they were treated like damaged goods. At least the SPCA was clean and the animals had indoor/outdoor kennels and not kept in wire crates.

  3. Ron Lobos on May 18, 2015 at 6:11 am

    Since Tari is the author of this budget, it was disappointing to find out that she wasn’t going to be in attendance. Her attendence would have been more appropriate in order to address the concerns of the citizens. If I were king of the forest, I would have requested from the Council a 1 hour time slot at the end of the meeting to address questions from the audience.

    I know that this would have taken courage, but respect from the audience would have been the result. I would have liked to point out the fact that students make up 16% of our population but we spend 42% of the budget on them. At what percentage do we put cap on school expenditures?

    • Bob Laird on May 19, 2015 at 11:17 pm

      I don’t know that I agree here, Ron.

      The Council has to invite the County Executive to speak at these meetings. Even if they do, she is not “expected” to be there anymore than she can expect the Council members to keep her meeting slots open in case she wants to invite them. While I don’t know for certain, I cannot imagine that her trip wasn’t a long time in the planning stages – and sometimes you have to go when the opportunity presents itself for these types of things.

      Whether I have agreed or disagreed with Tari, I have always found her to be WILLING to do whatever she could to keep lines of communication open on all fronts. She is easy to access and easy to speak with as long as you are courteous (and, even then, she appears to have an appropriately-thick skin).

      • Ron Lobos on May 21, 2015 at 5:28 pm

        Bob, I think that Tari would whole heartedly agree with your position on this, but like I said, this is my position as king of the forest. You see, real leaders don’t watch things happen, they make things happen. I can’t believe that the County Executive has to wait for an invitation. Tari should have been proactive and requested this presence during the budget hearing.

        I am also becoming curious as to how much vacation time is allotted the County Executive under Charter Government. I believe that county employees currently get 20 paid vacation days, 12 paid holidays, 12 paid sick days and 5 paid personal days.

        You are correct in pointing out that Tari is a very nice person, but sometimes I see this getting in the way. I believe that Tari tries to make everybody happy in the budget process, and because of that, we have used up the county’s surplus funds and are looking at increases in county taxes. If an increase is voted in favor of by any of our elected officials, I find it hard to believe that they will serve another term in any elected position in this county.

        • Bob Laird on May 22, 2015 at 11:01 pm

          You don’t have to believe that the County Executive has to wait for an invitation, unless the guidelines in Cecil County are different than I am aware (which is, of course, possible) she does not have any right to do anything BUT wait for an invitation. Protocol doesn’t flex simply because we want it to flex. Further, it would be improper for her to be present at a budget meeting after submitting the budget to the Council – her time for hearings was prior to submission. They need to be separate for a multitude of reasons. The audience questions for Tari needed to come at her own hearings.

          On vacation time, where are you pulling this concern from, Ron? Whatever she is entitled to receive is what she is taking just like anyone else. If not, she’d be caught. Too many watchdogs on stuff like that. Frankly, like any member of leadership, the hours are 24/7/365. I’m fairly confident that she’s pulled down plenty of time that she doesn’t “bank” – enough that I think we can give her slack for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like that. It’s not like she left anything behind that wasn’t properly maintained – she didn’t come to a meeting that she shouldn’t have attended in the first place.

          Just think you’re off base on this one.

          • Ron Lobos on May 24, 2015 at 5:31 am

            A lot of assumptions there Bob.

  4. Mike R on May 18, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Enough already with the drug rehab programs. Why do we the taxpayers have to pay for treatment and rehab for these druggies? We all know it’s just another excuse to spend “our” money. I have no sympathy for drug addicts– if they are serious about getting off drugs, there are plenty of programs available. Take that health dept. money and buy the equipment needed for law enforcement.

    And here we go again with Hodge and animal control– this fiasco was originated by Hodge himself. He was so quick on the trigger to crucify the SPCA and form the committee to rewrite the law. Well we all know how well that went. And now he has the gall to shoot from the hip again and show his ignorance. SPCA did a better job at animal control than these circus clowns known as the Buddy’s.

  5. Almost Heaven on May 19, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Although the hearing was supposed to be limited to citizens, county schools superintendent Dr. D’Ette Devine spoke in support of her budget, which was mostly fully funded by Moore.

    ‘More is not divine’ for the Cecil County Public Schools. Why are these two women insisting on a bigger piece of the budget for a failed system that endorses the unproven, not voted on, extremely expensive, and unconstitutional Common Core curriculum?

    The Council would do well to eliminate any, and all, funding for Common Core in the Cecil County Public Schools budget.

    We can’t control what goes on in our schools when decisions about what children are taught, how their taught, and who teaches them are made in Washington not Elkton.

    Please do not raise my taxes to fund such an un-American approach to education.

  6. D W Senn on May 21, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Riot gear for the Sheriff’s Department? The only riots I’ve ever seen in Cecil County are in county council chambers. Ha!

    • Jeannette Houle on May 23, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Don’t agree with you DW Senn. I would much rather see money spent to keep our law enforcement safe than to just blow money away on the school system or a lot of other programs that are overspending. I believe that law enforcement should have the equipment needed in order to protect themselves not so much from rioters in this county but from the drug lords and junkies who are running our streets and messing with our children. Have you ever been on a drug raid DW Senn? If you did, you would change your attitude.

      • D W Senn on May 27, 2015 at 5:21 pm

        “Have you ever been on a drug raid DW Senn?”

        No, but like you, I’ve watched them on TV.

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