Cecil County Budget: Health Dept. Asks $3 Million, Hotel Tax Delayed; Now Heavy Lifting Begins

May 18, 2017

After weeks of listening to department heads defend and explain their budget proposals, the Cecil County Council will hear from citizens next week and then the heavy lifting begins: deciding whether to accept, or cut, County Executive Alan McCarthy’s proposed Fiscal 2018 budget that would boost property tax rates and raise income taxes.

Many local residents have already weighed in during public comment sessions at Council meetings, with schools advocates and teachers urging support for the education budget while a local anti-tax group has launched an automated email campaign to oppose the budget’s tax boosts. McCarthy’s budget would raise the property tax rate by 5-cents while raising the income tax rate from 2.8 percent to 3 percent. But the new budget proposal would be fully financed by annual revenues, for the first time in many years, and would not raid a “fund balance” safety-net account that was nearly wiped out by deficit-spending during his predecessor’s four-year term.

In the final round of budget hearings before the County Council on 5/16/2017, the Health Department budget, and its key role in combatting the illegal drug epidemic and overdose deaths, was reviewed. The Cecil County Health Department is actually a state agency, staffed by state employees, but the county generally provides about 25 percent of the department’s budget. Indeed, the Council has little actual oversight power over many of the agency’s operations even as local taxpayers are asked to pay for a significant portion of the expenses.

The full Health Department budget, including state funds, was not even included in the budget presentation or in the official county budget documents posted on the county website. Only the request for $3,313,451 in funds from the county– a small reduction of $42,760 from the current fiscal year—was presented. Included in that figure is continued county support to pay salaries of three “peer recovery advocates” to work with drug and alcohol addicts, at a cost of $107,835; pre-release counseling and addiction services to inmates leaving the county detention center, at a cost of $109,011; and an early intervention program in cooperation with county schools, at a cost of $65,225.

In addition, the county is being asked to pay the costs– $18,750—to purchase Narcan, which reverses the effects of a drug overdose, and distribute the medication to addicts, their families, and law enforcement officers who often deal with drug overdose incidents.

Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R- ) questioned the broad availability of Narcan, saying that emergency responders have voiced concerns that the same addicts are being revived from overdoses again and again, as “repeat customers.” Narcan “used to be a life-saving drug; now it’s a party drug,” Schneckenburger said

Stephanie Garrity, the head of the Cecil County Health Department, said that it is the agency’s policy to make Narcan as widely available as possible and that addicts and their family members can obtain the medication for free through the Health Department. She said it was hoped that by coming into contact with the agency that addicts could be brought into treatment services.

In March, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a “state of emergency” due to record numbers of drug overdose deaths and pledged an extra $10 million in state aid to combat the crisis, especially through treatment and intervention programs, on top of $122 million in health funds already included in his Fiscal 2018 budget for anti-drug programs. Hogan promised to add $10 million a year for five years to state aid for anti-drug programs. Garrity said she expected that Cecil County would receive funds from the expanded state aid but there was no information yet about how much might “trickle down” to the county.

Garrity touted her agency for recently receiving “accreditation” from a national non-profit organization, the Public Health Accreditation Board, after a three-year bureaucratic process. She said that six other county health departments in the state had already received the accreditation: Allegany, Frederick, Garrett, Wicomico, Worcester and Harford counties. With the exception of Harford, all the other counties are largely smaller, rural counties. Garrity said there was no financial reward, such as higher aid and grant awards, associated with having obtained the accreditation status but she said the process helped improve the “quality” of services.

The Health Department’s website outlines the lengthy bureaucratic process, beginning in March, 2014 and ending three years later in March 2017, to obtain the status, which involved paperwork, reviews of operations and on-site visits by the national group. During the same timeframe, Cecil County’s drug problem has grown exponentially, with record numbers of overdose deaths.

The state has not yet released the full-year statistics on drug-related deaths for calendar year 2016, in part because of strains placed on the state Medical Examiner’s office to cope with the spiraling numbers of suspected overdose deaths and the need to perform toxicology testing on so many victims to determine which drug, or combination of drugs, caused a death. But the previous year’s stats (2015) showed a record number of drug deaths in the county, and reports by the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office so far in 2017 have confirmed rising numbers of drug overdose deaths in the county this year.

The Sheriff’s office has been pro-active and transparent in providing information to the public about the current state of the overdose problem, even as the county health department has declined to provide information to the County Council, and the public, on recent overdose deaths Indeed, at several past Board of Health meetings between Garrity and the County Council over the past few years, she has claimed she did not know the local overdose death figures—even though they were already posted on the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website.

In contrast with the Health Department’s major local funds request, the Social Services Department—which is also a state agency—made a modest request for $250,000 in county funds to support seven employees providing direct services to county residents, including two positions working with victims of domestic violence and five staffers involved in direct delivery of other social services to county residents.

Sue Bailey, the social services director, said the state budget for social services faces a $1.8 million budget cut in Fiscal 2018 but it is not yet known how that will impact the local programs. And she noted that the “help center” which distributes direct aid to needy residents—from food to clothing to household supplies—is operating with just one staffer, aided by volunteers, after its budget was reduced and a second staff position was cut.

Meanwhile, the County Council considered, briefly, its first budget decision at its evening meeting on 5/16/2017, when the council voted, 4-1, to delay action on McCarthy’s proposed increase in a hotel room tax, from 3 percent to 6 percent. The hotel tax only applies to the few major hotels operating in the county, generally in the Elkton and North East areas, and does not apply to small bed and breakfast operations, such as those in Chesapeake City. The increase would add $100,000 in revenues to the county budget from a fee generally paid by non-residents visiting the county.

Cecil County currently has the lowest hotel room tax in the entire state, and minimal revenues derived from the fee. Many smaller and rural counties earn much higher revenues, with higher room tax rates, than McCarthy’s proposal.

Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) said it was a mistake to have scheduled action on the hotel tax proposal for the Tuesday session and instead it should be considered along with the rest of budget and tax rate legislation that is due to be acted upon by the council in early June.

Schneckenburger dissented on the delay, saying, “If you introduce this bill I would vote against it tonight.” (In fact, the bill had already been introduced; Bowlsbey’s delay motion simply put off a decision vote until all budget deliberations have been concluded.)

Bowlsbey noted that if the hotel tax bill were voted down at this point, “the budget would not be balanced.”

Schneckenburger disagreed, saying that the Council still had “plenty of time” to offset the $100,000 in revenues with other spending cuts in the budget.”

“I totally disagree” Bowlsbey responded.

County residents get their turn to advise the County Council on the budget when a public hearing is held next week, at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, 5/23/2017, at Elkton High School, 110 James St. in Elkton.

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