Cecil CO Budget: Moore’s Last Plan Boosts Employee Pay, Limits School Spending Rise, Taxes Stable; But Reserve Funds Raided Again

April 3, 2016
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NEWS ANALYSIS

In her last budget as Cecil County Executive, Tari Moore—who 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 million—bringing her four-year hit on county reserve money to at least $12.4 million. Those hits are estimated to reduce remaining “unassigned” 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 “step” pay grade boosts in recent years. Moore’s 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 “maintenance of effort” local funding level, according to the official, detailed budget documents posted on the county website. (An abbreviated ‘budget in brief’ document issued at Moore’s 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 million—including 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.

“We really need to get the deferred maintenance projects going forward. We can’t have millions of dollars of deferred maintenance projects,” Dawn Branch, the Board of Education president, said after hearing Moore’s 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 schools’ operating budget during review of the executive’s spending plans, even as the Council went line-by-line in other program budgets to cut some $2 million out of Moore’s budget so as to prevent her planned two-cents property tax rate increase from taking effect.

On property taxes, Moore’s proposals are more restrained this year, with her budget calling for a “constant yield” tax rate—holding the county to the same total amount of property tax revenues as it received in the previous year—but that equation could still slightly boost some property owners’ 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. That’s a tiny difference, and Moore’s own budget documents indicate that it would take just about $62,000 in budget cuts to undo Moore’s property tax increase. That’s 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 won’t be raised by the Council in this election year.

By category, here are some highlights of Moore’s budget proposal—and relevant points not included in her presentation:

SHERIFF:
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 investigations—since the county took over local traffic enforcement from the State Police several years ago—a new unit needed to be created. Moore granted Adams’ 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.

Adams’ budget also calls for purchase of a “body cavity” scanner device. (We don’t 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. “That must change,” Moore said.

(The county also has one of the lowest-paid Sheriff’s in the state, and legislation pending in Annapolis would increase the independently-elected Sheriff’s pay, but Moore did not sign on to a County Council letter of support for an amended bill to boost the Sheriff’s pay to $100,000 a year after the next election for Sheriff.) That pay level would be slightly above the county executive’s pay scale.

ANIMAL CONTROL

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 Sheriff’s Corrections Officer position pays $16.29 per hour. But Moore’s proposals call for paying a ‘supervisor’ 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 county’s Department of Emergency Services, while kennel and onsite staff will be supervised by the county’s “community services” department, formerly known as senior services and transit. It was unclear from Moore’s budget documents if the animal control officers’ 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 ½ 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 “supplies,” such as food and medicine, will cost $195,395, plus $60,000 for “professional services,” 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 2017—including 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 “request for proposals’ bid process that Moore unilaterally cancelled a few weeks ago. (So Moore’s 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.

CECIL COLLEGE

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 college’s share of higher employee healthcare costs.

LIBRARIES

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.

“FUND BALANCE” Siphons

Only budget nerds get too down in the weeds on “unassigned fund balance” technicalities, but in fact that is where the real nitty gritty of county spending can be tracked.

The county must have a “rainy day” fund, equal to about 7.5 percent of its overall budget, under state laws and rules set by bond underwriters looking to evaluate the county’s 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 flexible— and in the case of the Moore administration, the more accessible secret piggy bank— is the so-called “unassigned fund balance” 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 “unassigned fund balance” 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 Moore’s spending plans and raid on the fund balance account to about $1 million—but 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 county’s budget website.

Now, Moore’s new budget calls for hitting the account for another $2,587,523 million—for a total hit by the Moore administration of at least $12.4 million. County budget manager Craig Whiteford—who has just completed his last county budget preparation before moving over to Cecil College to become the college’s comptroller—said that after the new budget’s 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 “crystal ball” 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 county’s economic future, after Moore stuck a very large pin into the county’s fiscal cushion and deflated it for her own spending agenda.

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One Response to Cecil CO Budget: Moore’s Last Plan Boosts Employee Pay, Limits School Spending Rise, Taxes Stable; But Reserve Funds Raided Again

  1. Jonathan Hart on April 5, 2016 at 8:39 am

    How can anyone looking at this budget be pleased. Again the taxpayers are being taken to the cleaners. Don’t I wish I could get a 5 percent pay raise like the county employees. But then I work in the private business sector and you have to pray every day that you will still have a job tomorrow, not job security for life like the government employees.

    And now we have to pay for 8 new county workers to handle the animals and buy a government shelter for $500,000 on top of that. Why didn’t the council get told about this, before Moore made her own decision, without telling anyone how much the total costs will be. Why didn’t Moore tell anyone that there was a much cheaper option on the table– $650,000 for EVERYTHING from a private contractor. So taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay top dollar salaries and benefits and expand the county worker payroll.

    If I were a deputy I would be insulted that Tari Moore will pay dog catchers more money than a law enforcement officer who risks his life every day dealing with the criminals in this county. Thanks to Cecil Times for finding this out.

    County Council, it should be very clear to you why she would not reveal her animal control budget before the budget submission deadline. Anyone with a half a brain could figure out this is a bad decision.

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ALAN McCARTHY for COUNTY EXEC

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