Cecil County Council Approves New Budget, Freezes Tax Rate; Schools Untouched, Sheriff Gets Last Minute Hit

June 3, 2015

The Cecil County Council approved a new Fiscal 2016 budget Tuesday night, cutting spending by over $2 million to kill a property tax increase proposed by County Executive Tari Moore. But the council’s deliberations went to the wire with a last-minute $150,000 spending cut in the county Sheriff’s Department budget that already had been reduced.

The hit on the Sheriff’s budget was initiated by County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5), who had been pressing for weeks for even deeper, $250,000 cuts in the Sheriff’s budget but had met resistance from fellow Council members. But Hodge saw his opportunity to resurrect a scaled-back budget cut Tuesday morning, when the council was looking for ways to mitigate the impact of a new Moore-proposed property transfer tax– with a two-month delay to cover existing sales/purchase contracts.

After vote shifts by two Councilors from the morning to the evening sessions on Tuesday, Hodge’s $150,000 cut in the Sheriff’s budget was nevertheless approved at the evening meeting, as Major George Stanko, head of the Sheriff’s law enforcement division, sat stoically in the front of the audience.

In contrast, the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) emerged victorious with nary a nick in the schools’ budget, except for a belated deletion of $255,000 for tennis courts repairs that council members had demanded for weeks should get the money but just not in the operating budget where the money would be counted on the property tax rate. When county finance officials repeatedly insisted the cost could not legally be shifted to bond-funded capital projects, a majority of the council finally forfeited the tennis match.
(Two other items—a broadband expansion project and energy efficiency moves—were pulled out of the operating budget, but will resurface in the capital budget under a 7/1/15 budget amendment that will be submitted by the county executive.)

CCPS officials and supporters had waged a high-intensity pressure campaign even before Moore’s budget was released on 4/1/15 but, while successful this year, the tactics may have ramifications for future budget reviews. Indeed, even Council members who backed CCPS this year warned Tuesday night that next year may be a very different story.

In her third budget as county executive, Moore had proposed a $184,785,276 general fund operating budget, but the County Council cut $2,639,412 off that figure, resulting in a Fiscal 2016 spending plan of $182,145,864, according to spreadsheets presented Tuesday evening. As a result, the Council was able to accomplish its top priority: killing Moore’s proposed more than two-cent property tax rate boost and instead freezing the tax rate at the same level it has been set for the past two years.

So instead of Moore’s proposed boost of the tax rate from $0.9907 per $100 of assessed property value to $1.01, the council’s action will freeze the tax rate again. Moore had calculated her increase would cost an owner of a home valued at about $200,000 an extra $45 a year. (However, state property value assessments have been rising recently, and even with another freeze on the local tax rate, property owners could still see a rise in their bills due to rising property values.)

Property owners will also lose a 2 percent discount for early payment of their property taxes, by July 31 each year, under a Moore plan to raise an additional $1 million in revenues to the county budget.

Cecil County employees sustained the largest hit in the Council’s review of the budget, with $400,000 cut from healthcare and elimination of a sick-leave buyback plan, for a spending reduction of $357,426. Moore’s budget had included a $3.1 million boost for employee healthcare spending. Moore maintained that those costs amounted to a trade-off for providing no cost-of-living or “step” pay raises for county workers in the budget. But the Council insisted that employees should shoulder a greater share of the costs through higher deductibles or co-pays.

County employees grumbled that they were being singled out while county schools’ employees, covered by their own health system, were getting better benefits and also cost-of-living and step pay boosts.

In a budget process that was largely devoid of the political grandstanding of the past two years– when the remaining “Two Amigos” from the old Board of Commissioners ruling troika loudly and interminably denounced Moore and fellow Council members at every turn—this year’s Council, including two new members going through their first budget process, rolled up their sleeves and conducted an exhaustive, and exhausting, line-by-line review of Moore’s budget and found spending cuts she had not been willing to make.

(Hodge had some last minute grandstanding of his own, voting against the capital improvement budget Tuesday night, saying many of the projects gave him “heartburn” that he had not had shown symptoms of during previous budget worksessions.)

But Councilors simply ran out of money and time to address some issues in more than a cursory way—especially Moore’s imposition of a new property transfer tax of 0.5 percent of a property’s value, instead of a flat $10 recording fee, to boost county revenues by more than $1.5 million in the new budget.

So Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) came up with a plan Tuesday morning for a brief reprieve for people or businesses that had signed a sales/purchase contract as of June 1—prior to the adoption of the new county budget— to allow them to pay just the flat $10 fee that was the law of the county when they signed their contracts.

“I just think it’s a fairness issue,” Bowlsbey said, and she proposed a brief grace period for already signed sale/purchase contracts, as long as the sales go to final settlement by August 31, 2015.

County Finance Director Winston Robinson estimated her proposal would cost the county up to $300,000 in reduced revenues and noted that July and August traditionally account for heavy volumes of property sales.

Since the Council still had at least $160,000 in extra cash on the table from other spending cuts made last Thursday at a special budget worksession, Hodge jumped in with his planned Sheriff’s department cuts as a way to pay for the rest of Bowlsbey’s transfer tax delay.

“I’ve suggested cuts in public safety that have been ignored,” said Hodge, who just last week wanted to cut $250,000 from the Sheriff’s budget but was rebuffed by other councilors, especially since Hodge wanted to eliminate the Community Corrections directorship, a post now held by former county Sheriff Barry Janney.

But faced with the transfer tax offset, Hodge pushed his agenda item again—this time scaling it back to $150,000 and not specifying where the Sheriff’s law enforcement budget should be cut. “Let him decide the priorities,” Hodge said.

Hodge claimed that “we have not touched public safety” in the budget so far, but Robinson corrected him, saying that cuts in the overall Sheriff’s budget already made by the council amounted to $275,000, including reduced funds for riot safety gear for deputies. (And Moore had previously declined the sheriff’s request for hiring and equipping five new deputies and three extra corrections officers at the jail.)

Councilors George Patchell (R-4) and Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) refused to go along with the cut in the Sheriff’s budget to pay for the transfer tax delay, while Bowlsbey and Hodge favored the step.

Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) emphasized he steadfastly opposed the transfer tax on principle and didn’t see the point of a brief delay. But Hodge coaxed him, saying “I’m trying to make a bad thing better” by giving a bit of relief to property buyers, and McCarthy eventually went along.

But by Tuesday evening, McCarthy had talked with Sheriff Scott Adams and changed his mind. So McCarthy then voted against Hodge’s cut—but then Scheckenburger changed his vote to support it, with the result that there was a 3-2 majority to cut the Sheriff’s budget again. Patchell continued to oppose the Sheriff’s budget cut.

“I can’t be like some other Council people and change their mind and then we’re in a quandary,” said Schneckenburger. After the meeting, he told Cecil Times that he felt Bowlsbey’s point about “fairness” was well-taken and at that late stage in the process there was no other option to pay for it.

Meanwhile, Moore’s budget gave CCPS a $4.5 million increase in spending over the current budget year, or a 5.9 percent boost. That funding level will allow hiring of 15 new employees, including teachers of English as a Second Language (ESOL) and special education teachers. (That increase figure also includes a mandated state shift of annually-rising teacher pension costs to the county.)

Moore allocated $81.4 million to CCPS, for a $4.3 million boost above the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” county funding level for local public schools that reflects the per-pupil spending level of the previous budget year. (However, the county’s student enrollment is projected to decline in the new budget year.)

Throughout its deliberations, all but one member of the Council – George Patchell—refused to say anything about the CCPS budget or consider any cuts, with the exception of protracted discussions about how to shift money for tennis court repairs and some other expenses out of the operating budget. Patchell described the CCPS budget as “the elephant in the room” that no one else was willing to confront.

CCPS leaders and school advocates may have overplayed their hand with their early and often pressure on Council members even before Moore had unveiled her budget. Some council members who had ‘taken the pledge’ to support the CCPS budget even before Moore’s plan was released on 4/1/15 said Tuesday night that next year will be a different story.

Hodge gave what he described as “a callout to the public schools,” saying “Next year we may not be as generous unless there are some changes in the economy of Cecil County.”

Schneckenburger was even stronger in his assessment: “In hindsight, it was a mistake to commit to a department” before all the details of the budget were known, “and I won’t do that again.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to Cecil County Council Approves New Budget, Freezes Tax Rate; Schools Untouched, Sheriff Gets Last Minute Hit

  1. Mike R on June 3, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Robert Hodge is a disgrace. I certainly hope that the Sheriff’s Office takes a lesson from the Baltimore Police should Hodge and other county staff need law enforcement assist. With the murders, robberies and drugs in this county, the last department that should have been hit was the Sheriff’s Office. Goes to show, old leopard, same spots. Term limits a must.

  2. Joe on June 5, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    I agree Mike, it would be a shame if his front door had been kicked in and no Deputy was available.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Fine Maryland Wines
Proudly made in Cecil County