Cecil County Council Peanut Gallery Budget Flubs; Can-Kicking Versus Investment in Future

May 31, 2017


A majority of the Cecil County Council seems to be worrying about picking up peanuts, as it reviews the proposed Fiscal 2018 budget, while ignoring the elephants in the room: the need to invest in the county’s future and to work harder and smarter to address the local opioid drug epidemic.

Some of the Council’s preliminary budget actions reflected the newbie factor of two new Council members with a lot to learn about county government and the budget process while other efforts displayed some grandstanding and gimmickry by a veteran Councilor who should, and does, know better.

Some nickel-and-dime decisions, like cutting a paltry $29,100 item that would have added a part-time small business librarian to the county library system, made no sense from an investment standpoint. The lone small business librarian in the county has been publicly credited by numerous start-ups for their success, while state and national library agencies have recognized the county library for its innovative efforts despite not having added any other new staffers since 2009, even as public demand for services has skyrocketed.

And a major item—the Health Department’s request for $3.2 million in county funds—didn’t get a single word from the Council. Although a state agency, county taxpayers provide about 25 percent of the local department’s budget. The department, headed by Stephanie Garrity and with Ken Collins as its “drug czar,” has presided over an escalating drug crisis with the most visible results the distribution of Narcan, a medication that reverses a potentially fatal overdose– while emergency responders report many “repeat customers” who get revived repeatedly but are still addicts.

A week ago, when the local Mayors’ Task Force on Drugs met to hear from Harford County health officials on that county’s innovative multi-pronged drug efforts, neither Garrity nor Collins bothered to attend the session convened by the mayors of Cecil County’s towns, sources present at the meeting said. A few strategic local budget cuts—with the stipulation that reductions be made in administrative expenses, not direct services to citizens and drug treatment efforts– might get their attention.

As the County Council prepares to meet again on Thursday (6/1/2017) to resume discussions on the Fiscal 2018 budget, their initial run-through of budget cut proposals on Tuesday has been re-calculated—much like that annoying voice on the GPS advises it is “recalculating” after a driver makes a wrong turn. The Council’s wrong turn came in an initial tally of $822,700 in proposed budget cuts that was subsequently re-calculated by county budget officials, who concluded that the reductions were actually just $464,946 in the Fiscal 2018 budget. (The Council can cut proposed spending but cannot increase spending in the budget.)

The change was due to depreciation factors on proposed equipment purchases, rejected by the Council, for an upgrade of communications technology, such as cameras, audio-video services and software, in the county administration building. (The Council only agreed to spend $10,000 to replace the perpetually malfunctioning microphones used in the Elk Room where Council meetings are held.)

Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5), who is going through her first budget process on the Council, bemoaned other depreciation calculations repeatedly during Tuesday’s session, even as county Finance Director Winston Robinson tried to explain the intricacies of government accounting rules and procedures. No doubt more of the same will be heard on Thursday.

[For a detailed report on the Council’s initial budget cut deliberations, see this previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2017/05/cecil-county-budget-council-cuts-822000-falls-short-of-some-members-great-expectations-gimmicks/]

The re-calculation of the Council’s spending cuts so far means that the panel has little if any hope of making a significant dent in the budget, with the cuts so far yielding less than a half-cent reduction on the proposed property tax rate.

County Executive Alan McCarthy has 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.

“Taxes are going to be raised, period; no ifs ands or buts,” observed freshman Councilor Bob Meffley (R-1) at the Tuesday worksession. Meffley, who owns a plumbing business, compared the county government to a small business that is owned by “the taxpayers.” And if the business is having problems, the owners “have to subsidize the business” for a while as they work to improve things.

But Meffley joined in with Gregory and Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R- ) on several spending cut decisions that were decidedly non-business friendly, such as the business librarian cut.

In a letter sent to the County Council on Wednesday, McCarthy asked the Councilors to reconsider 7 of the spending cuts already made, including the business librarian deletion and another cut of $50,000 from library digital licenses and other materials purchases. The librarian slot is “an extremely small amount to invest in a service that has had a measurable impact on the county’s economic growth,” McCarthy wrote, while the library materials are “smart investments” in education and small business.

McCarthy also lamented the council’s deletion of a systems analyst position ($78,751) from the Information Technology budget, calling the move “pennywise and pound foolish” because the county is making major “investment” in new communications equipment and software to serve emergency responders. A knowledgeable IT person is vital to address inevitable software problems that could jeopardize life-saving efforts, he added.

As the Council cut that IT position, and also considered but then dropped a proposal to kill an IT director position, one could only think of the contrast between those attitudes and the “investment” mentality of the nearby Kent County (MD) Commissioners—who are investing over $4 million in county funds to build a super high-speed fiber broadband system that is already serving that tiny county and is attracting new high-tech businesses to re-locate to the mostly rural area.

How did Kent County do it, without raising taxes? By being frugal for many years and building up reserve funds that it could tap when needed for a major, life-altering “investment” in the county’s future. In contrast, for the past four years, Cecil County systematically drained its “emergency” reserve funds to do the politically-popular, short-term “fix” by freezing the local tax rate and using reserves to pay for day-to-day expenses.

When former county executive Tari Moore took office, the Cecil County “unassigned fund balance” reserves stood at $15 million but now stands at about $6 million in the current fiscal year, the last budget that was enacted on Moore’s watch. McCarthy’s budget refuses to tap the reserve funds further and is balanced between spending and revenues in the same fiscal year.

(An independent Broadband Task Force appointed by the Cecil County Council several years ago recommended that the county should aggressively work to expand high-speed Internet services, including requiring all new construction projects, such as water and sewer lines and the waterline now being built from Cecilton to part of Earleville, to drop conduit pipes into the ditches so that fiber optic lines could be inserted later. But Moore rejected the recommendations.)

If the County Council members were serious about investing in the county’s future, they would dedicate whatever spending cuts they choose to make to re-building the reserve funds—to position the county to seize potential future “investment” opportunities—instead of quick, politically popular gestures that won’t achieve any long term gains in the county’s jobs and economic future.

But politics has been on center stage as Schneckenburger has pushed several grandstanding, but legally and fiscally questionable, gimmicks to shift operating expenses into capital budget spending in order to dump spending into long term bond accounts– so the spending wouldn’t count on the Fiscal 2018 property tax rate. The veteran councilor, whose Council seat is up for review by voters in the 2018 election, lost a race against McCarthy for county executive last year and has visibly been licking his political wounds ever since.

At one point on Tuesday, Schneckenburger threatened that he was willing to shut down all asphalt resurfacing of county roads as a way to push his argument that such road repairs should be counted in the long-term capital budget. McCarthy has held firm against that demand, as administration officials pointed out that such road repairs would not survive more than a few winters and did not meet the long-term improvements criteria for projects financed by capital bonds. Moreover, the county would have to pay interest costs to use bond funds to pay for projects that would be obsolete even while taxpayers were still paying for them. (Even Gregory abandoned him on that idea and she supported roadwork as an economic development tool.)

The usually unflappable Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) said angrily that such tactics amounted to trying to “kick the can down the road” and she objected to “smoke and mirrors” devices. She told Schneckenburger that she wanted “an honest budget” but “You don’t want to show it in the budget because you don’t want to raise taxes.”

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One Response to Cecil County Council Peanut Gallery Budget Flubs; Can-Kicking Versus Investment in Future

  1. Vince Pfeiffer on June 2, 2017 at 4:59 am

    Maybe, everyone is looking at this from politically wrong points of view. Can we stop with the attacks? Perhaps county leadership could look to examples of positve growth from local governments that actually are successful.
    Has anyone considered mingling with the government of Middletown, DE? Anyone that has lived here for more than 10 years can attest to the explosive economic improvement from what was a blip on the map, to what now can be termed explosive growth.
    They must be doing something right. Go sit in on some of their meetings to see how they did it. Everyone here needs to get over themselves and get on the ball. We in Cecil County have suffered long enough.
    Building homes and growing businesses is what builds a tax base that works. Raising taxes will stifle everything, without demonstrable improvement in the way things run around here. This crap is getting really old. Stop complaining, and do your jobs. There are examples that Cecil County could emulate to some degree of success.
    What are they doing in Middletown, that we in Cecil County could do as well?
    Most of us in lower Cecil County actually go to Middletown to do business now, because nothing like it exists anywhere near our area. But hey, keeping us labeled as tier 4 does so much for our future. Wouldn’t it be great if we were all geese, instead? We sure seem to be treated like mushrooms, county wide, given all the manure we have to tolerate from obviously inept leadership.

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