Cecil County Budget Review Highlights Jobs (and Jabs); Fair Hill Trots Out Best to Impress
Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthyâs first budget, which boosts spending for economic development and job-creation efforts, drew scrutiny from the County Council this week as McCarthy and state officials saddled up to try to bring elite four-legged tourists and the humans who love them to the county for a potential multi-million dollar jackpot.
Chris Moyer, the countyâs new Director of Economic Development, told the County Council on Tuesday (4/18/2017) that the executiveâs proposed budget provides a 5.7 percent increase in Fiscal 2018 over the current budget year for economic development efforts, including tourism promotion and agriculture as well as business and job development.
He said his agency âfully appreciates that the county has limited resources,â but urged the council to support the budget request as one that will pay off for the county in the long run. Several of the increases would benefit the tourism promotion office, with hiring of a part-time office services assistant and a higher advertising and promotion budget. The tourism office received kudos last year for hosting the return of the Bassmaster international fishing competition to Cecil County, an event that was estimated to contribute as much as $2 million to the local economy.
The tourism office recently moved to a downtown Elkton location, after its former site in the Perryville outlets mall was forced to close when the outlets operation shut down after years of dwindling visitor traffic and vacant storefronts. Tourism director Sandy Turner said it was âtoo soon to tellâ if the Elkton site will be much more visitor-friendly, since the peak tourism season is summer.
Meanwhile, McCarthy saddled up another tourism-related campaign when he joined with state and local officials this week to highlight the virtues of the Fair Hill racecourse and park in a bid to lure an international âfour starâ equestrian event to the Cecil County venue.
McCarthyâa veterinarian who formerly specialized in treating some famous thoroughbred racehorsesâ told Cecil Times that officials of the US Equestrian Federation were âimpressedâ with a tour of the facility and presentations on the suitability of the site. He said state Secretary of Commerce Mike Gill and several aides to Governor Hogan also attended and offered state support for the project. The visitors were also treated to some local hospitality and gourmet food at the Fair Hill Inn.
Fair Hill is in the running to host a âfour starâ equestrian event, a multi-day competition that is comparable to an Olympics-level international event and could bring as much as $30 million in economic impact for Maryland from competitors and tourists attending the event and businesses serving the influx of attendees. Fair Hill, known for its steeplechase events now and its professional thoroughbred horse training center, is in competition with a Virginia facility for selection of a four-star event site by the US Equestrian Federation.
Governor Hogan included $250,000 in his capital budget, but the General Assembly only approved $100,000 in bond funds, for engineering and design work for a proposed re-design of the racecourse and building new grandstands. The National Steeplechase Foundation, based at Fair Hill, is acting as the sponsor of the effort to raise private funds as well as receive grant funds from the state for the project.
Supplemental budget requests could up the ante for state aid, but the initial installment would get the planning process started. If Fair Hill is awarded the four-star event status, the first competition is expected to occur in 2019.
Meanwhile, in his second âweekly messageâ to citizens about his budget proposals, McCarthy defended boosts in employee pay and administrative costs, saying that such costs account for about 6 percent of general fund operating expenditures while ensuring efficient delivery of services. He said that county employees had not had pay raises in four of the past eight fiscal years but would receive a 2 percent âstepâ raise under the countyâs work classification system.
âAusterity does not lead to prosperity,â McCarthy wrote. His budget calls for a 5-cent rise in the property tax rate and would boost the local âpiggybackâ income tax rate from 2.8 percent to 3 percent. However, for the first time in two decades, the county budget would be fully balanced between spending and annual revenuesâinstead of his predecessorsâ gimmick of deficit-financed budgets that plugged the fiscal holes by draining emergency reserve funds that had been accumulated over many years as a protection against fiscal or weather adversity.
The County Council is currently reviewing the proposed budget and holding weekly hearings with department heads to question them about spending and program plans. So far the questioning has been polite and there havenât been the flashpoints of some previous yearsâ discussions.
But the most contentious moments came this week when County Council Manager James Massey got into some sparring with Winston Robinson, the countyâs Director of Finance who also has the Information Technology unit under his wing. Massey complained that he had been trying to get upgraded equipment for the Elk Room, where the County Council meets with audio recordings of worksessions and legislative meetings. That room also hosts meetings with state and federal officials visiting the county.
âItâs an embarrassment when we have a Congressman come here and we donât have microphonesâ that work properly and in sufficient number to accommodate a meeting, Massey said, adding that he had been pleading for improved equipment for the Elk Room since 2014. He also complained bitterly that Robinson had initially not included him on a panel reviewing the technology needs, and then Robinson decided unilaterally to âpullâ a request for proposal on the project.
Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) agreed that the problems must be fixed on a permanent basis, such as a recent electronic buzz that jangled nerves and eardrums at several meetings, before the issue was (so far) resolved. âWe need new microphones,â she said.
Massey said he had come up with a proposal in 2016 to fix some of the problems at a cost of $6,500 but action was not taken. Now Robinson is proposing a broader âfixâ at a cost of $150,000, plus another $50,000 for audio services in other areas of the administration building, that would include more viewer-friendly screens on which to project documents and PowerPoint presentations in the Elk Room.
Massey pleaded with the County Council to âtake the lead on thisâ and not leave it up to the county administrationâand by extension, Robinson– to fix the problems. Massey has already taken the lead on videotaping some Council budget meetings and posting them on the Internet for the public to view, in addition to the audiotapes of council worksessions and legislative meetings that Massey supervises.
The countyâs IT staff had studied videotaping for years and came up with high cost estimates that the Council was unwilling to pay. So the Council recently got Massey a cheap video camera and a tripod and he and his assistant made their cinematic debut to record a recent meeting on the schools budget.