Cecil County Council Tinkers with Moore Budget; Slight Spending Cuts, Tiny Tax Rise– Worries About Reserve Funds Raid
The Cecil County Council decided on Tuesday (6/7/16) to approve lame duck County Executive Tari Mooreâs final budget with minimal spending cut tinkering– putting just $131,000 back into reserve funds that Moore has raided by over $12.4 million during her tenure. The Council went along with Mooreâs proposed property tax rate for Fiscal 2017, imposing a tiny, far less than a penny boost from the current tax rate.
The Council also cut spending in the Fiscal 2017 capital budget, which covers construction projects, by $6.18 million, in part by delaying some projects until the following fiscal year.
Mooreâs budget for the Fiscal 2017 budget year, which begins on 7/1/16, proposed a tax rate of 0.9914, a miniscule increase from the current rate of 0.9907 per $100 of property valuation. So for a home assessed for tax purposes at $200,000, the current tax bill would be $1,981.40. At the new rate, the same propertyâs tax bill would be $1,982.80âan increase of $1.40 per year.
The new tax rate is set at the âconstant yieldâ levelâwhich means the rate needed to generate the same amount of property tax revenues to the county as it received in the previous budget year. Lower property tax assessments by the state, the stagnant state of the local economy and sluggish property sales have all contributed to the somewhat reduced level of property tax revenue sources.
The new budget includes a 5 percent pay raise for county employees, with some groupsâsuch as law enforcement and emergency services workers covered by collective bargaining agreementsâreceiving higher boosts. But county employees face higher health insurance premiums or must switch to less generous coverage due to spiralling health insurance costs under the countyâs self-insured system. County workers had gone for years with no pay boosts or minimal rises well below increased costs of living, with the result that there had been a âbrain drainâ of experienced county workers to higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
The Cecil County Sheriffâs Departmentâfor the past several years a target of last minute spending cut proposals initiated by County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5)âemerged unscathed, with approval of five new deputies to be assigned to a new traffic enforcement unit, to investigate a rising number of traffic fatalities as well as contribute to drug enforcement efforts via traffic stops.
The Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS)âwhich got a generous $3.6 million budget boost last yearâwas limited to the state-mandated minimum âmaintenance of effortâ level that yielded less than a $1 million boost in the new budget. (A rise in student enrollment contributed to some of that increase, which also provided higher state aid to CCPS.) Attention to the schools was focused on the capital budget, boosting spending by $10.2 million to tackle some long overdue maintenance and construction projects, including replacement of boilers at several schools, continued construction on the new Perryville Elementary School, and planning for needed construction projects at Gilpin Manor and other schools.
[SEE CECIL TIMES report and News Analysis of Mooreâs original budget proposal for Fiscal 2017 here: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/04/cecil-co-budget-moores-last-plan-boosts-employee-pay-limits-school-spending-rise-taxes-stable-but-exec-continues-reserve-funds-raid-for-spending/ ]
Mooreâs latest and last budget relied heavily on raiding the countyâs âunassigned fund balanceâ reserve funds, accumulated for many years by the former County Commissioners, as a cushion against unexpected fiscal adversityâsuch as snowstorms or legal rulings. Her new proposal raided the reserve fund for $2.58 millionâjust the latest in her annual raid on the reserve funds to finance her spending plans. During her four years in office, she has siphoned off over $12.4 million from the reservesâleaving at most about $2 million for the future. One unexpected heavy snowstorm with significant road plowing costs could deplete the funds to zero in the future.
The County Council has let Moore drain the funds for several years but, for the first time this year, most members expressed serious concerns about the depleted state of the countyâs fiscal cushion. âWe canât balance the budget any more on the back of the fund balance,â Councilor George Patchell (R-4) observed at a recent budget worksession.
So the Council decided on Tuesday to make $131,000 in operating fund spending cuts and assign the savings to the countyâs âunassigned fund balanceâ reserve funds account. That action only slightly reduces Mooreâs latest assault on the fund balance reserves, to a tally of $2.44 million in spending from the reserves in the new budget year.
Earlier in budget deliberations, Hodge indicated he wanted to freeze budget allocations for animal control/animal sheltering services at the current $660,000 levelâinstead of the $720,000 Moore wanted for her new government-takeover of such services. But the Council relented and gave Moore what she wanted after David Trolio, the head of the newly-named Department of Community Servicesâwhich covers bus and senior citizen services and now government operated Animal Control after Moore bought the former Cecil County SPCA shelter in Chesapeake City recentlyââimploredâ councilors to give Moore more money.
That figure does not include about $500,000 that Moore siphoned out of the current Fiscal 2016 budget, and unspecified bond funds, to purchase the SPCA building and its 12 acre site for $395,000 and provide $100,000 in estimated renovation and equipment costs.
Several council members said they thought the new operating budget figure of $720,000 was too much money but they did not want to impede the government owned and operated animal shelter/animal control operations in its start-up mode. The Cecil County SPCA put in a bid to provide full animal control and animal sheltering operations in Fiscal 2017 for $650,000, without the county having to buy the property or pay utility or other operating costs. Moore refused to consider that bid, cancelled a request for proposals from private contractors, and decided on her own without any consultation with the County Council to create a new government owned and operated animal shelter and animal rescue program at a much higher cost to taxpayers.
Meanwhile, during recent budget worksessions, the County Council sent a shot across the bow of the county library system, with warnings that a more âfrugalâ plan must be produced to replace the tiny, aging library in North East. The library system wants to build a more than $19 million facility that would also incorporate administrative offices now housed at the central library in Elkton as a way to free up more space for patrons, computers and books at that very busy facility. There were no changes in the new budget, since the facility is still in the planning stages, but Hodge said the Council should âset parametersâ for the multi-year construction project so that library officials could adjust their plans for the future. The county should not provide âa blank check,â according to Hodge.
Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) has proposed cutting construction costs (land acquisition costs have already been spent) from $18.6 million to $12.86 million, or a $5.8 million reduction. A majority of members of the Council have endorsed the idea in principle, although Councilor George Patchell (R-4) said he wanted to discuss the matter further with library officials.
Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) objected to the proposal, saying that North East desperately needed a new facility and that relocating administrative offices from Elkton would breathe new life into that location and prevent possibly costly expansion on a limited site there in the future. He worried that such a significant cost cut would force a smaller facility in North East that could not accommodate the needs cited by the library system.
Supporters of the new library have been very vocal at local government meetings and on social media to urge full funding for the original plan.
After several weeks of worksession meetings at which Council members questioned county department heads and agencies at length on program operations, the Council voted Tuesday night to make mostly small snips on short-term spending and to delay decisions on some construction proposals until Fiscal 2018âwhen a new county executive will be faced with many tough budget decisions. McCarthy has won the Republican nomination for County Executive and he will face Democrat Wayne Tomeâthe mayor of Port Deposit and a former county commissionerâin the November general election.
Cuts in the Fiscal 2017 operating budget approved by the Council were:
–$40,000 cut from operating and maintenance costs for the county administration building in Elkton;
–$10,000 cut from the County Councilâs legal services funds;
–$25,000 cut from the Department of Public Works signs fund;
–$15,000 from the Department of Public Works database services fees;
–$18,000 cut from the Department of Public Works landfill professional fees, for gas level monitoring and other services;
–$23,000 from the Department of Public Works for disposing of waste at the landfill.
In the capital budget, which covers construction projects, the Council made the following cuts in the Fiscal 2017 budget:
–Cut $325,000 from a plan to pave and improve curbs at the county Health Department parking lot; some councilors said the project could be delayed until the Fiscal 2018 budget while others said the entire project was unnecessary.
–Delay the $2.9 million Holloway Beach sewer installation project until Fiscal 2018, with caveats that more state and federal grant funds should be sought to upgrade services in the area that has been plagued by overflows of raw sewage and failing septic systems.
–Spread out the next phase of development costs for the Calvert Regional Park over two fiscal years, with $913,000 allocated in Fiscal 2017 and the same amount in Fiscal 2018.
–Deleted $2 million that had been proposed for constructing a new operations and controls building at the North East River wastewater treatment plant (Seneca Point.) The sewage plant is currently being upgraded to meet stricter state and federal environmental standards and public works officials had previously cut the controls building from the project to save money. But when construction bids came in way below budget, they sought to re-instate the building replacement. After discussions with the Council, DPW chief Scott Flanigan said the costs could be reduced to $1.7 million.
The existing building is a leaking, water-logged mess, County Council members agreed, but they thought more cost effective options could be sought, such as a temporary portable building in which administrative staff not directly involved in control operations could be housed. The roof on the existing building is in desperate need of replacement, and Flanigan is expected to use some of the cost savings on the overall Seneca Point upgrade to plug the leaks.