Cecil CO Budget: Moore’s Last Plan Boosts Employee Pay, Limits School Spending Rise, Taxes Stable; But Reserve Funds Raided Again
In her last budget as Cecil County Executive, Tari Mooreâwho is not running for re-election– does more of the same: draining reserve funds, accumulated over many years by past County Commissioners to protect the county against sudden fiscal adversity, in order to pay for her current spending plans. Her latest Fiscal 2017 budget, revealed on Friday 4/1/16, draws down those reserves by another $2.58 millionâbringing her four-year hit on county reserve money to at least $12.4 million. Those hits are estimated to reduce remaining âunassignedâ reserves to just $2 million for the future, according to budget officials.
But her final budget gives some comfort to county employees, who have complained of no or minimal cost of living pay raises or âstepâ pay grade boosts in recent years. Mooreâs budget proposes a 5 percent pay increase for all county employees, and for law enforcement and emergency services workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, the pay and step boosts will be even higher. BUT county workers are facing sharply higher health insurance premiums, so pay boosts could be offset by higher health costs, through boosted insurance premiums or being financially forced to step down to a higher deductible or higher co-pay plan.
The Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS), which got a tasty budget banquet in the current fiscal year with a $3.59 million operating budget increase and authorization to hire 15 new teachers, are being asked to switch to the salad bar in the new spending proposal– with about a $1 million or 1.3 percent increase to comply with the lowest state-mandated âmaintenance of effortâ local funding level, according to the official, detailed budget documents posted on the county website. (An abbreviated âbudget in briefâ document issued at Mooreâs press conference used a slightly lower figure.)
But the county is also boosting capital budget spending, for ongoing school repair, renovation or equipment replacement, to $10.2 millionâincluding continuing rebuilding of the Perryville Elementary school, planning for needed replacement of Gilpin Manor, and replacements of boilers and other maintenance projects at many schools.
âWe really need to get the deferred maintenance projects going forward. We canât have millions of dollars of deferred maintenance projects,â Dawn Branch, the Board of Education president, said after hearing Mooreâs budget proposals on Tuesday.
Last year, CCPS extracted advance political pledges from a majority of the County Council not to touch or even discuss the schoolsâ operating budget during review of the executiveâs spending plans, even as the Council went line-by-line in other program budgets to cut some $2 million out of Mooreâs budget so as to prevent her planned two-cents property tax rate increase from taking effect.
On property taxes, Mooreâs proposals are more restrained this year, with her budget calling for a âconstant yieldâ tax rateâholding the county to the same total amount of property tax revenues as it received in the previous yearâbut that equation could still slightly boost some property ownersâ individual bills, especially for residents who received higher property value assessments for this year in the southern section of the county. (All properties are re-assessed every three years, with the state doing the valuations by geographic areas each year.)
The current property tax rate is 0.9907 per $100 of assessed property value. Moore wants to boost that rate to 0.9914. Thatâs a tiny difference, and Mooreâs own budget documents indicate that it would take just about $62,000 in budget cuts to undo Mooreâs property tax increase. Thatâs a no-brainer for the County Council, with two members running in the Republican primary election seeking to replace Moore, so you can probably take it to the bank that the property tax rate wonât be raised by the Council in this election year.
By category, here are some highlights of Mooreâs budget proposalâand relevant points not included in her presentation:
Cecil County Sheriff Scott Adams, a Republican, asked for five new deputies to staff a new, enhanced traffic enforcement unit. He recently told Cecil Times that, with 13 traffic fatalities last year and the need to do detailed traffic incident reconstruction investigationsâsince the county took over local traffic enforcement from the State Police several years agoâa new unit needed to be created. Moore granted Adamsâ request for the new traffic unit. Traffic stops are also a major source of law enforcement efforts in the war on illegal drugs in the county.
Adamsâ budget also calls for purchase of a âbody cavityâ scanner device. (We donât really want to think too much about this one, except that the deputies and corrections officers will likely welcome a high tech alternative to other options to check criminals for hidden weapons or contraband.)
Moore cited information brought to her attention by Adams, that the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) compiled data showing that Cecil County had one of the lowest per capita (population based) levels of county financial support for law enforcement in the state. âThat must change,â Moore said.
(The county also has one of the lowest-paid Sheriffâs in the state, and legislation pending in Annapolis would increase the independently-elected Sheriffâs pay, but Moore did not sign on to a County Council letter of support for an amended bill to boost the Sheriffâs pay to $100,000 a year after the next election for Sheriff.) That pay level would be slightly above the county executiveâs pay scale.
Moore has unilaterally decided to bring county animal control/animal shelter services in-house with eight county government employees and a county-owned shelter facility. The new capital budget lists proposed capital budget costs of $500,000, including purchase costs of $395,000 for the former Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. (CCSPCA) 12-acre animal shelter in Chesapeake City, plus an estimated $100,000 in costs for repairs and start-up equipment. BUT the budget does not specify future interest or borrowed money costs to pay off the bond- financed costs of buying the property.
And neither the proposed capital nor the annual operating budgets account for ongoing costs for repairs, monthly utility bills, facility maintenance, insurance or related property costs. AND separate county documents show Moore plans to pay animal control officers more than, and up to twice the amount, that the county pays new sworn law enforcement deputies or corrections officers. (Are stray dogs and cats more threatening than armed/violent human criminals???)
Under current county Human Resources job openings postings, a vacant Law Enforcement deputy position is available for a flat $19.50 an hour, plus county benefits, while a Sheriffâs Corrections Officer position pays $16.29 per hour. But Mooreâs proposals call for paying a âsupervisorâ animal control officer up to $33.71 per hour, while an entry level animal control officer would get up to $19.50 per hour.
The two animal control officers will be under the authority and direction of the countyâs Department of Emergency Services, while kennel and onsite staff will be supervised by the countyâs âcommunity servicesâ department, formerly known as senior services and transit. It was unclear from Mooreâs budget documents if the animal control officersâ costs for health and retirement benefits would be allocated under the Emergency Services budget, which shows an overall 18.5 percent operating cost boost.
In her budget proposal, Moore claims the costs of a county owned and operated animal control system will cost the same as the $720,000 a year she was paying A Buddy or Life, Inc., her private animal services contractor for the past 3 Â˝ years. But that figure in her new budget does not cover property purchase costs, debt service, utilities, and other ongoing costs that were previously handled by a private contractor. Her budget claims staff costs will be $444,371 and âsupplies,â such as food and medicine, will cost $195,395, plus $60,000 for âprofessional services,â apparently a consulting veterinarian.
CECIL TIMES has obtained documents showing that the county could have had full animal control and animal sheltering services for about $650,000 in Fiscal 2017âincluding animal control/ capture, housing and medical care for stray and surrendered animals, rescue and adoption services, etc., without the county having to buy or maintain a shelter building. That bid was submitted by the CCSPCA as part of a ârequest for proposalsâ bid process that Moore unilaterally cancelled a few weeks ago. (So Mooreâs plan costs at least $1.22 million, plus debt service costs, utilities, property maintenance, benefits, etc., or nearly twice the cost of animal services under the CCSPCA bid.)
So taxpayers could have had animal care provided at the same animal shelter facility, for less yearly cost and without having to go into debt to buy a property, if Moore had proceeded with the RFP process.
After a few years of frugal allocations just above state mandated levels of aid, Cecil College is on track to get back into the budget buffet line. The college has a long-term major capital expansion plan it is proposing to launch over several years, but at least for now, the new budget gives the college a short-term 11.7 percent operating budget boost, from $8.95 million in the current budget year to $10 million. Some of the boosted funds will have to be used to offset the collegeâs share of higher employee healthcare costs.
The public libraries get an operating budget boost, with higher pay for employees just like other county workers, and additional funds to help offset higher employer costs for health benefits. Still uncertain is the fate of the library systems capital budget plans, including a new North East library that will include countywide administrative office space that would be moved from the Elkton main library facility. County Councilors have expressed reservations about the overall costs, some $18 million, while expressing support for a new North East library but perhaps in scaled-down cost fashion.
âFUND BALANCEâ Siphons
Only budget nerds get too down in the weeds on âunassigned fund balanceâ technicalities, but in fact that is where the real nitty gritty of county spending can be tracked.
The county must have a ârainy dayâ fund, equal to about 7.5 percent of its overall budget, under state laws and rules set by bond underwriters looking to evaluate the countyâs credit-worthiness. That is just about a sacred, do-not-touch or your fingers will get burned on the hot stove budget account.
The more flexibleâ and in the case of the Moore administration, the more accessible secret piggy bankâ is the so-called âunassigned fund balanceâ line item. Over the past decade or so, previous Boards of Commissioners tucked away extra money for safe-keeping in case of fiscal emergencies or natural disasters. (Remember the forecasts for Super Storm Sandy? Cecil County was originally forecast as the epicenter of the legendary storm but luck, and the winds, shifted the worst damages of the disaster to the nearby Jersey shore.)
From her first budget, in the Fiscal 2014 budget year, Moore has been draining the âunassigned fund balanceâ reserve funds to balance her year to year spending plans. In her original budget for Fiscal 2014, Moore hit that fund for $3.34 million to balance her budget. Then, in Fiscal 2015, after several mid-year budget amendments, she drained $4.73 million from the fund balance. In the current Fiscal 2016 budget year, the County Council cut back Mooreâs spending plans and raid on the fund balance account to about $1 millionâbut even before this budget year is over, snow removal and other unexpected costs upped the ante to $1.6 million drawn from that reserve account, according to multiple annual budget document filings on the countyâs budget website.
Now, Mooreâs new budget calls for hitting the account for another $2,587,523 millionâfor a total hit by the Moore administration of at least $12.4 million. County budget manager Craig Whitefordâwho has just completed his last county budget preparation before moving over to Cecil College to become the collegeâs comptrollerâsaid that after the new budgetâs projected tap on the unassigned fund balance, it is estimated there would be about $2 million left in that fund. But he added that one would have to have a âcrystal ballâ on future budget and economic events to be sure.
Nevertheless, whoever takes over as Cecil County executive after the November, 2016 elections will have a lot smaller safety net to guide and protect the countyâs economic future, after Moore stuck a very large pin into the countyâs fiscal cushion and deflated it for her own spending agenda.