Cecil County Budget: Just When You Thought it was Over, Here Come $ Amendments

July 8, 2015

The Cecil County Council adopted the new Fiscal 2016 budget just a few weeks ago but now that the new budget year began July 1, the panel is considering several budget amendments to boost or shift around spending and the county executive is asking for an expedited approval process that would shorten the time citizens have to review or comment on such budget changes.

In addition, the county administration is proposing an accounting change that would shift grant funds into a separate account—rather than being included in the budgets of individual departments that receive the grants—and accumulate an estimated $7 million in grants in the new account. That step, while providing a one-stop insight into the full range of state and federal grants received by the county, could also create the impression of $7 million in lower expenditures in departmental budgets next year, when a new budget will be crafted in the midst of an election year. The County Executive’s slot and two seats on the Council are at stake in the 2016 elections.

At the 7/7/15 County Council worksession, members discussed several budget amendments, including some that had been aired at length during the recent budget process, when councilors sought to shift money out of the operating budget—which drives the property tax rate—into medium to long term bonds.

So a county schools project, known as BTOP, which was dropped from the operating budget re-emerged at Tuesday’s worksession in a budget amendment to shift the $580,000 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program into the capital budget. The money for the final phase of hooking up schools to high-speed Internet services would come from the county’s bond (borrowed) funds.

And some money-shuffling is needed to deal with the Highlands sewage treatment facility, which is 35 years old and in danger of violating state environmental rules that could mean a hefty fine for the county, Scott Flanigan, the county’s Director of Public Works, told the council. Bids on the project initially came in over expectations, so DPW re-drafted the plan into three smaller segments and put it out to bid again, resulting in costs that were $1.5 million less than the original bids—but still higher than initially expected.

The plan is to shift nearly $700,000 from funds that had been tagged for improvements at the Seneca Point treatment plant and unspent funds that had been allocated to the Elkton West sewage lines that are intended to bring services to parts of the county’s “growth corridor.” But the Elkton West project is on ‘hold’, Flanigan said, because the county could not reach agreement with the Town of Elkton to expand services into the corridor.

Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-5) was unhappy with tapping the Elkton West
funds, saying, “that money was earmarked for building the tax base in our growth corridor.” The lack of public utilities in the Route 40 growth corridor has been an obstacle to attracting new business development to the area. The bulk of the transferred funds, $693,555, would be taken from the Elkton West project.

The ultimate goal of the Highlands project is to close that aging facility and re-allocate sewage to the Meadowview treatment plant that has adequate capacity to handle the flow and complies with environmental standards, Flanigan said.

During the worksession, Winston Robinson, the county’s Director of Finance, advanced a proposal from the administration of County Executive Tari Moore to expedite the County Council’s consideration of such budget amendments in the future. Under that plan, such budget amendments could become law in about six weeks: introduction at one council evening meeting, public hearing at the next session, and final adoption at the next evening meeting. Currently there is generally a longer interval between introduction of a budget amendment and the public hearing.

County Council manager James Massey, asked for his view of the idea, objected, saying it would not allow adequate time for publishing public hearing and legal notices in local print newspapers and enabling citizens to learn about such proposals and their opportunities to provide public comment to the County Council.

“It’s a bad practice,” Massey said. Speeding up the review process might “give the impression we’re trying to hide something,” he added. The council made no decision on Robinson’s proposal.

Robinson also proposed another new budgeting device: to shift state and federal grant funds into a separate, ‘special grants’ account instead of including grant funds as offsetting revenues for program expenditures by individual departments. That budget configuration would take the grant money out of the “general fund” category, which is the core of the county’s spending accounting.

Councilor George Patchell (R-4) welcomed that proposal, saying it would make it clearer just where the money was coming from. He said that some departmental budgets looked like they were spending more, but in fact grants accounted for new initiatives that were not coming out of local taxpayer-supported funds.

“It’s not a smoke and mirrors thing,” Robinson said.

But the accounting shift would move an estimated $7 million out of the departmental budgets, where the nature of the program is specified in the context of the department’s overall spending, and lump the money into a general ‘grants’ fund. As a result, overall spending in departmental budgets could appear to be that much less.

Creative accounting, election year politics, or greater insight into sources of funds: the County Council did not decide—if, indeed, the county administration believes the Council has the authority to decide on its planned accounting revision.

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One Response to Cecil County Budget: Just When You Thought it was Over, Here Come $ Amendments

  1. RDF 001 on July 9, 2015 at 10:40 am

    The county is faced with spending millions for wastewater facility improvements thanks to the ” 3 Amigos”. Broomell, Dunn, and Mullen disasters continue.

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