Cecil County Budget: Books, Business, Ballfields; Council Faces Heavy Lifting for Limited Results
Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthyâs first-ever budget proposal landed with a bang at the doorstep of the County Council this week, accompanied by a perhaps surprisingly muted reaction, so far, from the public and positive endorsements from local business leaders and representatives of popular county programs.
McCarthyâs budget raises property tax rates and local income taxes, invests in sewerline expansion to promote economic development in the growth corridor along Route 40 and nicks school spending proposals but still provides a substantial boost above state-mandated minimum aid levels. It is the first county budget in decades to be fully balanced between annual revenues and spending, without deficit spending gimmicks of the past. It is a pay-the-piper budget, asking the Council and citizens to pay-as-you go for services that people say they want, even if they are unhappy about paying the real price for them. [SEE detailed CECIL TIMES report on the new budget proposal here: http://ceciltimes.com/2017/04/mccarthy-proposes-property-income-tax-increases-in-first-balanced-cecil-county-budget-in-decades-more-for-cops-library-but-nicks-school-budget/ ]
The executiveâs proposed Fiscal 2018 budget calls for a five-cent boost on the property tax rate and would increase the local âpiggybackâ income tax rate from 2.8 percent to 3 percent. The county budget would be balanced between actual revenues and spending, without continuing to drain the countyâs emergency reserve funds, which dropped from $15 million when his predecessor, Tari Moore, took office to about $6 million now. All of her budgets relied on draining the âunassigned fund balance,â which was accumulated over many years as a cushion against fiscal and weather adversity.
McCarthy is fighting for his budget, holding meetings with small groups of business and community leaders, and on Friday (4/7/2017) issued the first in a series of weekly âmessagesâ to the public, designed to explain his budget proposals and rally public support. The initial message, posted on the county website, focuses on his nearly $81.7 million operating budget allocations for Cecil County Public Schools and notes the plan is $1.7 million above state-mandated âmaintenance of effortâ school spending levels.
âIf we do not address the needs of Cecil County now, when will we? âIf I donât stand up and take responsibility for a fiscally sustainable plan for the future of our great County, who willâ McCarthy asked in his message.
So far, McCarthyâs budget has drawn support from the Cecil Business Leaders group, whose chairman, David K. Williams, wrote in a Letter to the Editor that the group commends McCarthy for âhis understanding of the big picture.â And âThe proposed tax increases are the result of failure to address the obvious fiscal issues by past leaders and [a] just âkicking the can down the roadâ mentality. With this budget proposal, Dr. McCarthy has stopped kicking the canâ. [See the full letter on our Letters to the Editor page, linked above.]
On social media, the response has so far been largely muted, although the Campaign for Liberty anti-tax group has responded with its usual personal attacks, showing photo-shopped pictures of McCarthy. And a small splinter group of Republicansâwho are using a nameâs-almost-the-same gambit that tries to confuse people into thinking they are actually the mainstream county GOP club– is echoing the C4L groupâs complaints.
But McCarthy faces a hard sell with the County Council, which can cut his proposed budget and set a lower property tax rate and income tax rate than those proposed by the County Executive.
County Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3), who ran unsuccessfully against McCarthy for County Executive in the 2016 Republican primary and has continued his campaign criticism ever since McCarthy took office last December, declared: âI donât consider this a very conservative budget by any stretch and I would not support the budget if I had to vote on it today,â during the Councilâs 4/4/2017 worksession. He challenged fellow Council members to work with him to âdo the hard work and roll up my sleevesâ to cut the budget.
Councilor George Patchell (R-4) commented, âIâm not going to support tax increases at this pointâ and said he would look for budget cuts. âBut at the end of the day, if Iâm not satisfied with it, Iâm not going to support it.â
Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2), who has generally been a supporter of McCarthy, said she did not âsee a lot of wiggle roomâ in the budget for cuts.
Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) is a former leader of the Cecil County Patriots group that strongly opposed tax increases and she campaigned against government spending and tax boosts in her run for the council. Her fellow newcomer on the Council, Bob Meffley (R-1) is a small businessman who has urged pro-business policies and expansion of infrastructure to promote economic development, as McCarthyâs budget calls for. These two are facing their first ever budget go-around on the council.
To retain the status quo, the Council would have to come up with $5.2 million in spending cuts to freeze the county property tax rate, which has been essentially frozen for the past four years, and another $2 million to block a proposed increase in the local income tax rate. And those cuts would come at the expense of a wide range of popular county programs, from libraries and schools to roads and the fight against drugs, that advocates say have pressing needs.
If past is prologue, the prospects of this County Council undertaking and succeeding in such a massive rollback are slim. And this Council does not have the luxury of a multi-million dollar slush fund that Moore used to avoid the fiscal and political consequences of her budget decisions, with at least the partial acquiescence of past Councils.
Two years ago, the County Council labored mightily for weeks on end to cut $2.6 million from then-executive Mooreâs Fiscal 2016 budget to prevent a more than two-cents proposed increase in the county property tax rateâand still ended up tapping well over a million dollars from emergency reserve funds just to balance the budget. In the process, the council made some difficult trade-offs and in reality simply postponed many long-term policy decisions for another dayâor year.
McCarthy has now laid down a gauntlet, refusing to tap what little reserve funds are left, to balance his budget. So the Council would be politically hard-pressed to resort once again to deficit-funding their budget.
Now the County Council has an uphill task, requiring cuts of $1 million dollars in spending for every penny on the proposed property tax rate increaseâor over $5 millionâin order to freeze the property tax rate at its current $0.9914 rate per $100 of assessed property value. (McCarthy’s proposed increase would boost the annual property tax bill by $100 for owners of a home valued at $200,000.)
While the Council doesnât have the easy crutch of the past four years to raid the depleted fund balance, members also have Moore to thank for giving the Council less time to review the budget and come up with consensus spending cuts. Under several amendments to the county Charter pushed by Moore, and ratified by county voters in 2014, the council has two fewer weeks to review the budget under a revised timetable for action.
And Moore got a Charter change to mandate that if the County Council has not reached an agreement on a budget alternative by June 15, then the executiveâs budget automatically becomes law. (Under the county Charter, the executive cannot veto budget legislation passed by the Council.)
There are few easy choices facing the Council, especially in light of some popular county agenciesâ having been bypassed in previous budgets.
Morgan Miller, director of the Cecil County Public Library (CCPL) system, explained to Council members on Tuesday (4/4/2017) that the libraries have operated with the same staffing levels since 2009, even as new programs have been added and library usage has soared.
Miller said CCPL asked McCarthy for three new part-time staff positions, but received just one: a part-time small business librarian to work with the existing full-time staffer who focuses on helping small business owners and entrepreneurs. Under questioning from Councilor Gregory, Miller defended a $75,000 increase for new library materials, saying there has been a 40 percent increase in âcirculated materialsâ even though CPL has âfallen behindâ in updating some of its offerings. CCPL is launching new online services, including a program known as Lynda, which offers online academic and business training courses.
But the big news is a turnabout in County Council support for a major new library construction project in North East. McCarthyâs budget proposed a Fiscal 2018 capital budget figure of $1.3 million in planning and design funds and long-term support for the 45,000 square-foot facilityâs construction, which will cost a total of $18.6 million, with the state and county sharing in the total costs. The State share is currently estimated at $3.4 million, although Miller said she hoped to win additional state support, while the county would provide the rest through bonds and âimpact aidâ funds from the Hollywood casino in Perryville.
In the past, Council members questioned the costs, but Bowlsbey and Schneckenburger said this week that, after detailed meetings with library officials, they are now supportive of the project. âWe were very uncertain about the future of this library,â Schneckenburger said, but that is no longer the case. âYou convinced me,â said Bowlsbey.
Miller advised the Council that CCPL had just received word from the state that its new library plan was the âtop ratedâ in the entire state and brought a promise of additional state aid for the project. The state will provide $861,000 for the planning and design work, with the county providing $431,000. State officials called the North East library plan âan extremely compelling proposalâ and said that a new North East library âhas been needed for nearly a decade.â
State officials were also impressed with the strategy of moving CCPL administrative offices from the Elkton branch to North East, thus opening up space for patrons in Elkton without adding on to that building, which has little if any land available for expansion.
âThis is the closest weâll ever come to being able to buy one library and get one free,â Miller joked.
The County Council also heard from Cecil College officials, who urged support for McCarthyâs increase of $898,000 in the collegeâs operating budget. About $350,000 of that amount is for replacement of computers, which were considered an operating cost rather than a long-term capital budget expense. Dr. Mary Bolt, the college president, said that state support for community colleges has been âflatâ even as the college is required to shoulder an increased share of health and pension costs for staff and faculty. Students will have to pay higher tuition under the new budget, an increase of $2 per credit hour or just under 2 percent more.
The County Council will continue to review the budget, with more hearings at which department heads defend and explain their spending proposals. County school officials are next on the hot seat on Tuesday 4/11/2017 at 6 p.m. at the county administration building.
There isnât a lot of low-hanging fruit in McCarthyâs budget that the Council could easily pick to save some money. And some of the fruit is outside the immediate operating budget that is the core cost area for the calculation of the property tax rate.
At the top of the fruitpile is proposed development of an artificial turf ballfield at Perryville High School which, curiously, was included in the county Parks and Recreation capital expense budget and not the schools budget. The project is budgeted for $1 million in the Fiscal 2018 capital budget, and county Director of Finance Winston Robinson told Cecil Times the project would be fast-tracked into a one year to 18 month time frame, so most of the actual costs would be accrued in the new budget year. The fields would be operated under a proposed âmemorandum of understandingâ between the schools and the parks and rec department, as part of a broader plan to âregionalizeâ playing field operations throughout the county under the parks department.
The Perryville project, which lists a reason for the plan as âless maintenanceâ than existing grass fields, seemingly came out of nowhere and took even local parents by surprise, although one parent did show up at the County Councilâs 4/4/2017 evening meeting to endorse the idea. But parents from other schools, especially North East high, are voicing upset on social media that somehow the Perryville project got to the top of a budget list while they have been waiting for many years for athletic field improvements. In particular, the award-winning North East High Marching Band has been unable to use its decrepit home field to host regional band competitions.
In the stateâs richest county, Montgomery, only now are artificial turf athletic fields being proposed, to mixed reactions. Some parents worry about the greater risk of injuries to young players on fake turf and the potential for particles of the turf to become airborne and inhaled by viewers of school athletic events who sit in close proximity to the playing fields.