Cecil County Budget: Council Cuts $822,000, Falls Short of Some Great Expectations, Gimmicks

May 30, 2017

The Cecil County Council took a stab at cutting the Fiscal 2018 budget on Tuesday (5/30/2017) and came up far short of a grandiose plan advanced by two members seeking to cut over $6 million from the budget proposed by County Executive Alan McCarthy.

Cecil College and Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) survived multiple proposed significant budget hits but the county library system did not fare as well.

And regional Republican political concerns surfaced in a decision to fire former state Del. David Rudolph, a Democrat, from a $30,000 part-time consulting position in the County Executive’s office to work on getting more aid for the county from state agencies. The veteran delegate was defeated in the 2014 election by political newcomer Kevin Hornberger, a Republican who has already filed for re-election in the 2018 election. (Hornberger and other members of the area’s all-Republican state legislative delegation vehemently objected, for political reasons, to McCarthy’s hiring of the Democrat Rudolph earlier this year, sources said.)

Many of the proposed spending “cuts” would have come from postponing infrastructure, equipment purchases or staffing for another year; shifting short-term construction work such as basic road repairs out of current spending into long-term bond accounts that would then accrue extra future interest costs from borrowing money; or suggesting that departments could come back to the council later in the budget year to “re-visit” spending issues. But if those projects were cut out of the budget now, that would mean the only way to pay for such spending would be to once again raid the county’s reserve funds that have been largely depleted in the past four years and thus perpetuate a past county pattern of deficit-funding local budgets.

In his first budget since taking office a few months ago, McCarthy vowed to stop such raids on the county’s greatly diminished emergency reserve funds and instead proposed a budget that balanced spending with actual revenues within the fiscal year, which begins 7/1/2017. To do that, he proposed a boost of 5-cents on the property tax rate, which has essentially been frozen for the past four years, and an increase in the local “piggyback” income tax rate from 2.8 percent to 3 percent. His budget plan would raise revenues by $5.2 million through property taxes and $2 million from income taxes. He also proposed a hike in the hotel room tax for transient guests of major hotel properties that would raise an extra $100,000 in annual revenues.

To prevent the tax increases from taking effect, the Council would have to cut $7.3 million from the proposed budget. The running tally of over $822,000 in spending cuts endorsed by a majority of the Council on Tuesday, as calculated by Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2), would not even cut a penny off the property tax rate. The preliminary decisions by the Council are not binding and could change before final action, and the Council will meet again on Thursday to continue budget discussions in a worksession.

The spending hitlist advanced on Tuesday by Councilors Jackie Gregory (R-5 ) and Dan Schneckenburger (R-3 ), with some disagreements between them on some of the proposed cuts, included multiple items that the discussions showed were based on faulty assumptions or misinformation, such as failure to realize that information technology costs—such as phones, internet and computer services—were charged back to the budgets of individual departments that use such services.

The most significant proposed cut was a more than $1 million cut of the schools budget advocated by Councilor Gregory, who wanted to “flat fund” CCPS at the current level—which in the current year was the bare minimum “maintenance of effort” level of county spending mandated by state law. She said that enrollment had declined so the schools would actually get a bit more in per-pupil support even if the total county aid level was frozen.

Schneckenburger declined to go along with her on that one, but he wanted to cut $191,000 from CCPS because Gov. Larry Hogan had come up with a late education aid package that had not been accounted for in the county budget. But his assertion was contradicted by Tom Kappra, the CCPS finance director, who told the Council that McCarthy was aware of the Hogan plan—which was subsequently reduced to $183,000 for Cecil County– and the executive had taken it into account when he decided to cut over $2 million from the CCPS spending request. Kappra also said that if Gregory’s “flat funding” idea were approved, the budget cuts would have to come from “salaries” for teachers and other staff.

Gregory’s proposal was rejected, 4-1, by the Council and Schneckenburger’s cut was also turned down, 3-2, with Councilors Bowlsbey, George Patchell (R- )l, and Bob Meffley (R-1) voting no.

On other education issues, the Council rejected a plan by Gregory to “flat fund” Cecil College, cutting $610,000 from the budget. Schneckenburger disagreed with her proposal, but offered his own idea to spread out the $288,000 cost of new computers over long-term capital budget expenses that would not be counted against the property tax rate.

County Finance Director Winston Robinson pointed out that many computers at the college are obsolete and even new computers would not be legitimately expected to last over ten years or more to qualify for bond-funding. Patchell said it made no sense to pay bond interest costs for computers that would be useless before they were paid off, and Bowlsbey and Meffley agreed, thus killing Schneckenburger’s fiscal stall tactic.

One of the more surprising cuts came on the county library budget—one of the most staunchly defended programs in citizen testimony at public hearings. Schneckenburger, who promotes himself as an ally of business and economic development, advocated killing a new part-time small business librarian position, costing $29,100. During previous testimony before the council, library officials noted they had not had any staff position increases since 2009 even as demands for services have skyrocketed, and the existing small business assistance provided by one librarian was a major factor in the local library winning the highly-coveted national gold medal for excellence from the federal Institute for Library and Museum Services.

Gregory, Schneckenburger and Meffley, a newly elected Councilor who ran on a platform of being pro-business, agreed to cut the business library aide position.

And a majority of the same members backed a cut in additional library materials, including new software and digital educational programs as well as renewal of digital licenses and—heaven forbid—real, printed books, cutting the budget item from $75,000 to $25,000. Gregory mused at length about how when she goes to a library she sees lots of books and other informational materials and did not think more were needed now. (Library officials attending the meeting noted that they had suffered cuts in the past and that the proposed increase in materials spending would only bring the libraries to the level of spending in Fiscal 2011.)

The Council also cut library spending on salaries, reducing a proposed 3 percent pay boost to 2 percent, to match other county workers. Part of the rationale for the boost had been that staffing had not been increased since 2009 and existing workers had been run ragged to meet increased demand for services without additional staff.

Repeatedly during the discussions, Schneckenburger looked for ways to put spending off the current operating budget books and shift them into long-term capital budget costs that are not counted in calculating the current property tax rate. In particular, he sought to shift a $567,000 county “match” for state and federal grant aid to deal with stormwater run-off environmental mandates. But county officials and Bowlsbey warned that such a device could jeopardize millions of dollars in grant aid for a short-term local budget gimmick.

And in one of the more blatant budget gimmicks, Schneckenburger tried to shift some three-quarters of a million dollars in asphalt overlay repairs on county roads from short-term spending to long-term capital budget accounts. Given the fact that such short-term repairs wouldn’t last longer than a few winters, that device was viewed as a legal and fiscal non-starter by McCarthy’s administration and a majority of the Council.

Schneckenburger also protested that the executive’s budget underestimated revenues from property, income and property transfer taxes, claiming that if the revenues were estimated higher then there wouldn’t be a need for tax rate increases. But Robinson disputed that assertion, saying the estimates were in line with state forecasts of the economy and on-the-ground realities of the local economic climate.

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