Cecil Co Exec to Give Buddies More $ Despite Council Budget Cuts, No Spending Audit; Option to Extend Kennel Lease Through 2017
A CECIL TIMES SPECIAL REPORT
Cecil County Executive Tari Mooreâs proposal to give an extra $24,000 to her preferred animal control contractor, A Buddy for Life, Inc., for a six-month extended contract actually gives the group a net fiscal gain over their past pact and removes requirements for an independent audit of how taxpayer funds were spent in 2015.
Moore signed a $271,020, six-month extension of the Buddies previous three-year contract on 12/29/2015, even though she did not have sufficient funds in the current Fiscal 2016 budget year to pay for it. The Buddies do not own an animal shelter facility and the county also signed a separate $48,000 lease with the owners of Rainwood Kennels to continue to house animals at the Elkton site. On top of the money paid directly to the Buddies, the county is also taking over repairs and maintenance costs of two trucks used for animal control that were previously the fiscal responsibility of the Buddiesâat a taxpayer cost estimated by county officials at $4,980 for six months.
Now Moore is asking the County Council after-the-fact to approve a total of $24,000 in extra spending for total animal control servicesâdespite the fact that the Council cut animal control spending as part of the Councilâs successful efforts to block Mooreâs proposed property tax increase in Fiscal 2016. She wants to take the money out of the countyâs âfund balanceâ reserve funds, and did not propose any offsetting cut in other county spending to pay for her plan.
Her proposal did not sit well with a few councilors and citizens attending the 1/5/2016 âCitizensâ Cornerâ public comment period at the Councilâs evening meeting.
The Council should âaddress why we werenât advised of this contract before it was signed,â said County Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1). âWe did not know.â McCarthy, who is a licensed veterinarian, made a surprise visit last year to the Rainwood kennels operated by the Buddies and pronounced it âa messâ and reported animals with poor living and medical conditions. Despite his being a veterinarian with first-hand knowledge of animal issues, Moore has repeatedly kept him out of the loop.
âIâm outraged. This is a disgrace,â Lyn Yelton, the former chair of the now-suspended Animal Care and Control Oversight Commission, told the Council. âTheyâre flaunting it in your face.â And Yelton, who holds an MBA in finance and frequently questioned the Buddies accounting methods, said the Council was being circumvented by Moore. âYou arenât even in the process,â she told Councilors, with decisions being made by âone person.â
But County Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2), who led the efforts to write the countyâs Charter form of government that created a powerful county executive, said, âItâs not under our purview so thereâs nothing I can do about this.â
However, the County Council does hold the purse strings, and could refuse to approve the budget amendment, even if the county attorney insisted the signing of a contract was none of the Councilâs business. County director of administration Al Wein suggested that the executive might just go ahead with the available funds and pay the Buddies the monthly contracted amountâbut leave a potential crisis in the final month of the fiscal year with no money set aside for animal control. But he noted that state law requires the county to have an animal control program.
The issue will be back on this Tuesdayâs County Council worksession agenda, with discussion of the budget issue, a belated move to revive an oversight panel that Moore unilaterally suspended last spring, and a secret, closed door session to discuss potential county purchase of a shelter building at another so far unspecified taxpayer cost.
Meanwhile, Cecil Times obtained copies of the countyâs six-month contract with the Buddies, the countyâs lease with the owners of the Rainwood Kennels, and the sub-lease between the county and the Buddies for occupying the Rainwood Kennels. Those documents contain some interesting, and surprising, provisionsâincluding an option proposal by the county to extend its lease on Rainwood for a full year on top of the current six-month tenure, and a bad behavior penalty clause designed to address some issues that have plagued the Buddiesâ operations.
A significant change is the new contractâs provision that the Buddies do not have to comply with the past contractâs mandate for an independent audit of how county funds were spent in calendar year 2015âa major, retroactive revision of the previous contract. Members of a citizensâ oversight panel, which was unilaterally disbanded by Moore last spring, frequently raised questions about how the Buddies spent, and accounted for, taxpayer-provided funds.
In addition, the elimination of the audit requirement will likely put even more money into the Buddies pocket since they have been putting aside money each fiscal quarter for an âaudit fundâ that they now donât have to contract for. They allocated $9,400âout of the countyâs monthly payments â to their âaudit fundâ in the second quarter of 2015, according to fiscal reports sent to the county that were obtained by Cecil Times. And in the first quarter and third quarter reports, a total of about $6,000 was set aside out of the countyâs monthly payment and put into the âaudit fund.â The fourth quarter reports have not yet been submitted. Since they no longer are under obligation to hire an independent auditor, that money apparently stays in the groupâs pocket.
Meanwhile. the new county lease for the kennels– $8,000 per month– is substantially less than the average of $15,000 a month rent that the Buddies were paying, according to their fiscal reports to the county in 2015. County Administrator Al Wein told the Council last week that the rent reduction showed the county was trying to save costs. Rainwood is owned by Mary Thompson and her husband, retired county Circuit Court Judge Dexter Thompson. Mary Thompson signed the new lease in her own name and with power of attorney for her husband.
Most of the cost-savings cited by Wein are actually being borne by the Thompson family (which has experienced significant health issues) rather than the Buddies. In fact, adding up all the payments and offsets of expenses under the new extended contract, the Buddies end up in an even more favorable position than under their previous contract. The Buddies were previously getting $60,000 a month from the county, out of which they paid what Wein said was $14,000 for rent and $830 per month for vehicle repair and maintenanceâfor a net monthly cash yield of $45,170.
But specifics on the new contract yield a net cash benefit of the same amount for the Buddies as in the past. And the Buddies make out even better when the no audit provision and county takeover of vehicle repairs kick in.
The county administration claims in a âfact sheetâ that taxpayersâ assumption of costs of $830 per month for repair and maintenance of two animal control vehicles is really a ânet zeroâ cost because the Buddies paid that much out of their old $60,000 a month from the county, although Winston Robinson, the county director of finance, told the Council that officials had not reviewed repair records or receipts to verify such costs. A Cecil Times review of the Buddies fiscal reports to the county show the groupâs expenditures were far less: for the first quarter of 2015, vehicle repairs and maintenance expenses were listed at $241; $833 in the second quarter; and $763 in the third quarter, for a total of $1,837 during a nine-month periodâor an average of $204 per month.
Sources told Cecil Times that there have been instances of problems with the two animal control vehicles, which are owned by the county but leased to the Buddies for $1 a year each, but needed repairs were not made in a timely fashion out of the county-supplied funds.
(The âfact sheetâ submitted to the County Council counted âsavingsâ off the $60,000 per month figure allocated in the past, but the fiscal reality is that there is only $50,000 a month left in the Council-approved budget for the last six months of the fiscal year. The twists and turns were worthy of a budget proposal drafted by David Stockman, the budget director in the administration of former President Reagan and which Stockman later admitted were full of âsmoke and mirrorsâ and âmagic asterisksâ to obfuscate fiscal realities.)
Apart from just the financial aspects of the countyâs extended contract with the Buddies, there is a new behavior clause that Wein said was designed to âaddressâ some of the concerns from the public and the former ACCOC oversight panel. The Buddies drew negative state, national and international media coverage of the county and animal control issues âincluding an incident in which African-American Girl Scouts were allegedly subjected to racial slurs after they spoke out at a public meeting to advocate humane treatment of animals at the Buddiesâ shelter.
In addition, the Buddiesâ fostering and adoption polices came into question after a dog, âBrittany,â viciously attacked its foster mom and killed the familyâs own small dogâbut the Buddies subsequently posted the dog for adoption on social media without revealing its violent history. The Buddies also failed to reveal the state-mandated Brittany animal bite report on its official reports to the county.
In the new contract, the Buddies risk termination of their six-month contract if the Buddies, âboard members, employees, volunteers, and agentsâŚ in any way becomes involved in any situation that degrades or tends to degrade the County in the community, or which brings the County into disrepute, contempt, or scandal, whether or not information in regard thereto becomes public.â The contract also states that the county âplaces a premium on public image and public perception of its animal control program.â
Meanwhile, Cecil Times has learned that the county refunded $1,000 checks to each of the four bidders on an extended, still pending âRequest for Proposalsâ (RFP) for an 18- month animal control/animal sheltering contract that was supposed to be awarded for the last six months of the current budget year and the full Fiscal 2017 budget year that begins on 7/1/2016. The checks were considered a bid bond to assure bidders were serious about the process and would carry out a contract if deemed the successful bidder. Wein said the refund was a procedural matter, since Moore had extended the RFP deadline until March 31, 2016, and that all the bidders were still actively under consideration.
County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) claimed during the evening Council discussions that one of the biddersâthe Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. which formerly held the county contract for decadesâcould not step in to provide services promptly as needed by the county. âIt would take them a lot of time to gear up again,â he claimed.
But Jeanne Deeming, executive director of the CCSPCA, told Cecil Times that the organization had told Mooreâs administration that it would only take from four to six weeks to gear up to resume animal control/ animal sheltering services at its Chesapeake City shelter, which the group owns. She said she has already had talks with experienced animal control officers from nearby Delaware and an experienced animal shelter veterinarian about coming on board, but was awaiting a decision by the county on the RFP before any job offers or services arrangements could be formalized.
But Moore has been operating outside the RFP process and conducting separate real estate negotiations for possible county purchase of an animal shelter facility. Wein said last week that there were two properties under consideration, and he also said there was a potential for the county to just cancel the entire RFP and bring the full animal control/animal sheltering program âin house.â That would mean hiring county employees, at county payscales and benefit costs, as well as assuming the costs of purchase, renovation and ongoing maintenance of a shelter facility.
Moore is scheduled to hold a budget âtown hallâ meeting next week, at which citizensâ can offer their comments or concerns for the upcoming Fiscal 2017 budget. If Moore tries to buy an animal shelter property with taxpayer funds, it will have to be approved as part of a new capital expenditures budget and costs for operating and/or employing shelter workers directly will also need to go to the County Council for approval in a new operating expense budget.
Moore is not seeking re-election this year and is currently a lame duck politician. Two members of the County CouncilâMcCarthy and Dan Schneckenburger (R-5)âhave announced their candidacy for county executive in the upcoming April 26 Republican primary election.