Cecil County Council Lobs Budget Ball Over Moore’s Net; Schools Get $ Love, But in Tennis and Politics Love = Zero

June 5, 2015


The budget adopted by the Cecil County Council this week was the toughest top-to-bottom scrutiny of county government spending in the three years of Charter government, with one glaring exception: the public schools. And the only significant item eventually cut from the schools –tennis court repairs—became a symbolic issue as the Council fought until the last minute to save them.

In this year’s complex budget process, there were some winners and losers, some winners who also lost, and two stars who rose above the process with common sense and conviction.

The clear loser in the process was County Executive Tari Moore, whose property tax increase was repudiated by the Council. And the fact that the Council found over $2.6 million in spending cuts suggested the panel was willing to make tough decisions that she was not. Even though her more than two-cents boost on the property tax rate was killed, Moore still bears the political burden of having proposed it—along with a new transfer tax on property sales/purchases that alienated the business and real estate community.

After two years of “feel good” budgets that froze the property tax rate– but relied heavily on reserve funds accumulated by the old County Commissioners– and boosting spending for the schools and other programs, this time Moore had no easy choices. But some of the choices she made did not sit well with the Council—despite the fact that she and all members of the Council are Republicans and have generally had a cordial relationship.

Moore’s post is up for election in 2016 and she has told some local leaders that she plans to run for re-election. This year’s budget will no doubt be a major issue if indeed she does run again. And the business community that actively supported her candidacy in the past has recently openly criticized the budget and Moore herself.

Another loser in the process was County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5), whose determined efforts to cut the Sheriff’s Department budget came off looking mean-spirited. He also cast a sudden, grandstanding vote against the capital improvement budget while coming down with a case of “heartburn” over projects that hadn’t caused him much gastric distress during worksessions on the budget.

Hodge’s job presiding over the Council’s deliberations on the budget was actually a lot easier this year than in the past, when the remaining “Two Amigos” from the old commissioners’ board tried to stymie action at every turn and then-Councilor Diana Broomell ranted at length with accusations against fellow lawmakers. This time, Hodge never had to hit his gavel to restore order, as the council—with two new members facing their first budget process—buckled down to work seriously and studiously. The only raised voice this year was Hodge’s, as he got into several arguments with the county’s finance director, Winston Robinson.

This year was not the first time that Hodge has put the Sheriff’s office in his budget cross-hairs: in the final hours of review of the first Charter-era budget for Fiscal 2014, he proposed a $125,000 cut for the cops, teaming with the Two Amigos to ram it through. In the current budget, he led an effort to cut six police cars from the replacement pool by requiring higher mileage. And in 2014, he sided with the Amigos against a proposal to the General Assembly to boost the salary of a new Sheriff after the 2014 elections—despite the fact that Cecil’s independently-elected chief law enforcement officer had the third lowest pay in the state.

In recent weeks, Hodge tried repeatedly to cut as much as $250,000 from the Sheriff’s budget, saying that much of the savings could be achieved by eliminating the position of a Major directing operations of the Community Corrections program. That position is now occupied by Barry Janney, the former county sheriff who chose not to seek re-election last year.

While Hodge insisted his plan had “nothing to do with” the identity of the current holder of the job, it is no big secret in local political circles that there have been tensions between the two men in the past. Hodge used to complain that Janney didn’t return his phone calls.

While he didn’t make any headway with fellow councilors on his broader plan, Hodge seized a last-minute opportunity on Tuesday to push through a $150,000 across the board cut in the Sheriff’s budget without specifying how or where the cut would affect programs or staff. The money cut from the Sheriff’s budget was used to help pay for a two-month delay in collecting Moore’s new 0.5 percent property transfer tax—but only for sale/purchase contracts signed by 6/1/15 and that go to closing by 8/31/15. (That new tax will add $1,500 to the costs of buying a $300,000 home.)

In an interview with Cecil Times, Sheriff Scott Adams, who took office in December, said that the Council’s budget cuts were “disappointing” and he and his staff are combing through the budget to figure out how to cope. But one thing is certain: he will not go along with Hodge’s proposal to eliminate the Community Corrections director post.

“That’s ludicrous; it’s not the direction that any agency is going nationwide,” Adams said. The Sheriff has outlined to the Council in detail his plans to place more emphasis on the Community Corrections component of his operations as a way to address recidivism and drug addiction to try to end the cycle of crime and drug abuse that is at the core of the county’s public safety problems.

Indeed, at the same time that Hodge was pushing through his cuts to Adams’ budget, the agency got word from the Governor’s office that the Sheriff’s office had been selected for a new $47,500 grant to administer an injectable medication, Vivitrol, to inmates being released into the community so as to make them less likely to return to illegal drugs. The medication blocks the “high” of illegal drugs for 30 days, providing time to help offenders find treatment and counseling options to stay off addictive drugs.

“We’re really excited” about the grant, Adams said. The program will be started as soon as possible, with the hiring of a case worker to screen candidates, follow up on their progress and work with counselors already in place at the jail and community corrections programs. The grant was made directly to the Sheriff’s office but will be operated in co-operation with the county Health Department, Adams said.

Since taking office just a few months ago, Adams has re-organized his agency, changed deputies’ work shifts for greater efficiency and potentially reduced overtime pay, expanded special units dealing with drugs and street-level crime, boosted co-operative programs with the county’s Drug Court and health officials, and brought a level of “excitement” to his employees.

For all those reasons, as well as the dignified but determined way he fought for his budget and his deputies, Adams gets a Cecil Times “star” for this year’s budget process. His task in going forward for the rest of the budget year won’t be easy, as many deputies are upset with the budget and how it was handled by the Council—various hashtags have surfaced on the Internet, such as #deputies matter.

“This agency needs support,” Adams said. “The men and women of this department need to feel they have support from the Council.”

Adding to the difficulty was the symbolism of moves by the Council to cut funds for protective riot gear—including special helmets that could save the lives of deputies shot in the head by criminals—at the same time that most Council members were fighting to spend $255,000 for repairs of tennis courts at county schools. The Sheriff had asked for $89,000 for protective riot gear, but the full amount was cut fairly early in the Council’s budget review process on a motion made by Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3).

Eventually, Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and George Patchell (R-4) came up with $36,000 in cuts to the Council’s own budget and a sister city item to pay for some of the riot gear. (However, the text of the actual amendment voted on by the Council Tuesday night indicated an extra $19,000 for the gear, or a total of $54,000.)

The optics of helmets for cops versus tennis courts for the schools amounted to bad politics, and bad policy. The Council seemed oblivious to the contrast and to the mood of anger and disappointment swirling in the law enforcement community as the budget process unfolded.

Also oblivious were the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) and the elected School Board, who waged a fierce, early battle to protect their budget and extracted promises from a majority of the Council not to cut the CCPS budget—even before anyone knew what Moore’s budget would propose. Moore gave CCPS most of what it wanted, and the Council followed suit—with all but one member refusing even to discuss the schools budget at all, except for looking for ways to shift the costs of the tennis courts to bond funds instead of the operating budget that is largely financed by the property tax rate. A few days before final action on the budget, the Council threw in the towel when no legal way to shift the costs could be found and the courts were dropped.

CCPS suffered significant budget problems under the old Three Amigos rule of the County Commissioners, including the dubious distinction of being the only department of county government forced by budget slashes to lay off staff. But since Charter government began, the executive and council have been generous and corrected past Amigo mistakes, including moving ahead with the new School of Technology that had been blocked by the Amigos.

So while CCPS is the biggest winner of this year’s budget process, sometimes you can lose by winning. Already, two councilors who took the no-cuts pledge this year have warned that next year will be a different ball game (or tennis match.) And if CCPS had had its political antennae in gear, leaders should have stepped forward to offer some cuts in the tennis court item and suggest Council re-allocation to the cops’ gear. As it turned out, they lost the tennis courts anyway and also lost some face in the process.

The two newest Councilors facing their first budget trial by fire, Schneckenburger and Patchell, were a breath of fresh air during the many worksessions on the budget. Both worked hard, came up with suggestions and solutions, asked good questions and provided stark contrasts to the old Amigos they replaced in last year’s elections.

Schneckenburger drew up an early list of possible spending cuts, with the proviso that he was open to rebuttal or information that might challenge his proposals. He didn’t simply stick to a list and was genuinely engaged in the process. However, at times he sought to play both sides of some issues, especially on the Sheriff’s budget. At first, he voted ‘no’ on Hodge’s last minute $150,000 Sheriff cut. But when McCarthy changed his vote and opposed it, Schneckenburger shifted to support the cut in order to preserve a brief delay on imposing the property transfer tax.

Patchell consistently supported the Sheriff’s budget—at one point, even suggesting that the county re-allocate casino impact funds to pay for the riot gear. It was also Patchell who demanded firm guarantees from Emergency Services chief Richard Brooks on the full costs of a new radio system, found other cuts to re-instate maintenance of cardiac monitors used by volunteer fire company ambulances, and was the lone voice asking to at least look at the CCPS budget.

Patchell had not ‘taken the pledge’ to support CCPS at all costs and he spoke out about “the elephant in the room”—the schools budget—that no one else on the council would say a word about. There was clearly no ‘second’ for any motion he might make, and Hodge skipped over CCPS on the agenda any time the council went through the overall budget line-by-line.

Patchell came into his own as a Council member during the budget process, after some initial hesitation as a new member at meetings when he first took office. But he proved himself to be a strong player in the legislative body, with the courage of his convictions and a willingness to speak up even if his was the only voice in the room asking some important questions.

For those reasons, George Patchell gets a Cecil Times “Star” for his role in this year’s budget process.

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6 Responses to Cecil County Council Lobs Budget Ball Over Moore’s Net; Schools Get $ Love, But in Tennis and Politics Love = Zero

  1. Bob Laird on June 5, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    No matter where anyone stood on the budget scenarios, can we all agree on one thing? We should NEVER hear such inappropriate comments as those we heard from some of our Council Members throughout the budget process. There’s just no need for it. For example, the following quoted exchange from (approximately) time stamp 1:48:07 http://ccgov.org/uploads/cmup/Council/ws/150528_134133_CECIL.mp3

    COUNCILMAN HODGE: “Okay…I see that Dawn Branch left so…does anybody want to touch schools?”
    …and later in the conversation…
    COUNCILMAN HODGE: “Dawn Branch hasn’t come back yet [implies that it’s still “safe” to discuss CCPS because she is out of the room].”

    • Penny G on June 11, 2015 at 11:51 am

      But they never did discuss the schools budget. Only Mr. Patchell was willing to discuss that but no one else in the Council would answer him. This budget year was a total mess!

  2. Ron Lobos on June 6, 2015 at 7:40 am

    One of the things that bothers me most is the Council’s refusal to more thoroughly entertain budget cuts to the CCPS, especially since the CCPS should be considered a special interest. The reason I call it a special interest is because it doesn’t directly benefit everyone in the county. It only direct benefits the children, parents and employees of the CCPS. The rest of the tax paying citizens indirectly benefit somewhere in the future (we hope).

    Libraries, Public Works, the Sheriffs Department, Parks and Recreation, etc. are not special interests because those departments benefit us directly. As tax paying citizens, we all have access to these departments and benefit from them equally. (I get the same benefits from these departments as my next door neighbor) This is not the case with the school system. Students make up 15% of the county population yet we spend 42% of the budget on them. At what point do our County Executive and Council wake up and realize that enough is enough.

    By the way, I visited some of the tennis courts at the high schools and found some to be in perfect condition (North East) and others to be, while not perfect, very acceptable to play on. I just wonder if our County Executive took the time to inspect such a controversial item on the budget.

  3. Carl D Roberts on June 6, 2015 at 8:02 am

    The short time versus long term impact of the budget decisions is the key determination of whether wise moves were made. Next year during budget time will Cecil County be in a more competitive position having secured badly needed economic growth or will “we” be worse off? We shall see.

    • Joe C. on June 7, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      We can not have economic growth when taxes, fees and regulations strangle upstart businesses. Why not try holding the line on taxes and fee increases and then see what happens?

      We are proposing a method by which those who want to “pay more for schools”, will have a opportunity to do so. We are proposing a VOLUNTARY tax check off on the state income tax form. This is already done in at least one other state, CO! Line 50 on their form! Money would be directed to classroom support only, no administration siphoning allowed. Are you on board?

  4. Harold McCanick on June 7, 2015 at 8:33 am

    Dawn Branch and Carl Roberts-two peas that seem to want the entire County budget thrown at the feet of the school district and what ever they kick to the curb the rest of us can scrap over.

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