On the Bus, Off the Rails and Other Budget Tales; Trump Aid Cuts Could Affect Cecil Co Services

April 26, 2017

Cecil County Council members were all aboard the budget bus Tuesday evening (4/25/2017) when they reviewed Fiscal 2018 spending plans for the county’s bus transit, senior citizens’ and other programs, even as the services have grown in size and scope.

The Council is looking for ways to save money in the upcoming budget year, in an effort to mitigate proposed increases in the county property tax rate and a rise in the “piggyback” income tax rate. But there didn’t seem to be any inclination to trim anything from the $2.58 million it costs the county to operate the Department of Community Services.

The department, headed by David Trolio, had a mini-bus service and seniors’ programs at the core of its portfolio for many years, but on his watch the agency has grown to include animal services, health-related programs, youth assistance, housing aid, and broader transportation planning projects as well as greatly expanded bus services. Trolio said he anticipated bus ridership of almost 100,000 seats filled during the current Fiscal 2017 budget year.

The department gets most of its financial support from federal and state aid programs, as well as fees paid by bus riders and users of other services, which makes it popular with County Council members who are worried about shouldering higher costs of services by local taxpayers.

“We never get complaints about your department,” Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) told Trolio. People are “using the services and are happy with them,” he added.

Overall, the Community Services budget totals over $12 million for the Fiscal 2018 budget year, which begins on July 1. Of that total, 78 percent will come from state and federal grants and user fees, while county taxpayers are being asked to provide $2,586,523, or 22 percent of the total

Aging and “wellness” programs call for the county to pick up 46 percent of the costs, or $1.1million of the $2.4 million total costs, in the new budget. The agency operates a seniors’ fitness program offering memberships for $25 a month, including on-site personal trainers and classes geared toward older residents, held at the county Administration Building in Elkton. (The program faces competition from the much cheaper Planet Fitness, which offers $10 a month memberships at a newly renovated facility at Big Elk Mall.)

Budget cutting proposals by the Trump administration in Washington could affect some local programs but it is too soon to gauge the impact on the upcoming local budget.

The “wellness” programs include “meals on wheels” deliveries of food to homebound seniors, including about 350 clients in the county. The Trump administration has proposed budget cuts in federal aid to that program, but that plan is expected to meet stiff resistance in Congress.

The Trump administration has also proposed massive cuts in subsidized housing programs of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which supports housing “vouchers” (Section 8) and senior housing programs nationwide. In Cecil County, housing assistance accounts for $4.68 million in the Fiscal 2018 county budget but 99 percent of the costs are paid by the federal government.

Trolio said that there are about 600 families aided by federal housing vouchers in the county now, and there is a 2.5 to 3 years waiting list for people to obtain vouchers. He said that, as vouchers become available due to people losing eligibility for the program, his agency is being cautious while it awaits further guidance on the future outlook for federal vouchers. He said his agency did not want to have to discontinue help suddenly if the cuts go through Congress, which could force some families out of the homes they had just moved into.

The most visible services operated by the department are the Cecil Transit buses, covering services to Glasgow, DE; Elkton; Perryville and a “mid-county” route, including service to Cecil College. Trolio said that a new “shuttle” bus linking commuter train services in Newark, DE to the MARC commuter train end-of-the-line in Perryville is expected to begin operations by September. State and federal aid are supporting the service, with two small buses on order.

Trolio said that the service will “synch” with the timetables of MARC train services in Perryville, with buses traveling from the Newark SEPTA station along Route 279 and I-95, with a “central stop in the North East area” in Cecil County. It was unclear where that stop would be located, and how many car parking spaces would be available there.

Trolio said his agency did a “license plate survey” at three parking lots near the Perryville MARC station and found that 59 percent of the cars there were from out-of-state—including Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He said he would count the new shuttle bus service as “successful” if it had “10 to 20” riders per day. That might free up a few spots in the parking lots for Cecil residents, who have long complained about a shortage of parking near the Perryville train station.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy recently re-wrote the county’s transportation priority list to reinstate county demands for expanded MARC rail service from Perryville to Elkton, and beyond to link into an expanded rail hub being developed in Newark, DE. Under his predecessor, Tari Moore, the transportation priority list last year suddenly downplayed MARC extension and instead put a bus and rail “hub” in the town of North East as the county’s top priority, a move advocated by Trolio. But others viewed that step as undercutting the county’s longstanding pleas for MARC service expansion.
[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2017/03/mccarthy-pushes-new-i-95-exit-to-aid-biz-development-reinstates-rail-priorities-puts-moore-bus-hub-in-back-seat/]

The new shuttle bus service is now seen as a stop-gap effort to provide a ground link for commuters until a MARC rail line is extended through the county.

The Community Services department also now covers Animal Services, after the county government took over animal control and animal shelter duties last year. The county bought the animal shelter formerly owned by the Cecil County SPCA and decided to staff the program with full-time county employees. The Fiscal 2018 budget proposal includes total costs of $745,340 for animal services, including operating expenses and utilities. Cecil Times will post a separate report on animal services costs and operations soon.

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