Cecil County Budget: All Over But the Shouting; $415K in Spending Cuts Won’t Block Tax Boosts

June 2, 2017
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It’s all over but the shouting on Cecil County’s Fiscal 2018 proposed budget, after the County Council made its last round of budget decisions on Thursday and added back $49,100 in funds the panel had previously cut. The Council is set to formally adopt the budget next week at its 6/6/2017 evening meeting, at which there will no doubt be a fair amount of political rhetoric and at least one vote against the budget.

But County Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) extracted a promise from Council members that there would be no last-minute surprises at that session and members would stick by the decisions they had made in two lengthy worksessions on the budget. “I’d like things to run smoothly,” she said.

The Council’s decisions amount to less than half-a penny on the property tax rate, and Bowlsbey said after the final worksession that she had also obtained assurances from a majority of the Council that the money derived from the spending cuts would be allocated to the county’s depleted emergency reserve funds—the “unassigned fund balance”–rather than taking off a miniscule fraction from the property tax rate.

The county’s current property tax rate is 0.9914 per $100 of assessed property value and would rise to $1.04 under the new budget, which takes effect on 7/1/2017. For a home valued at $200,000, the change would add about $100 a year to property tax bills.

County Executive Alan McCarthy 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 had to cut $7.3 million from the proposed budget. The Council only agreed on $415,846 in spending reductions, accepted the income tax rise with minimal comments, and a majority supported the hotel tax rise, after Chris Moyer, the county’s Director of Economic Development, made a last-minute appeal to the Council, citing tourism data and comparable tax rates in other jurisdictions showing the hotel tax would not harm local tourism or hotel operators.

McCarthy had sent a letter to all Council members asking for re-consideration of seven spending cuts the panel had adopted earlier in the week, and the Council decided on Thursday (6/1/2017) to re-instate his spending plans for two items: $29,100 for a part-time small business librarian for the county library system and $20,000 for “facilities maintenance” for the Parks and Recreation department.

It was a rare moment in county politics when Councilor Bob Meffley (R-1) admitted, “I made a mistake when I shot down the small business librarian” position during the previous budget review session and said he would now vote in favor of the position. That vote shift was enough to re-instate the slot. (Meffley had campaigned in the2016 election as a small business owner who would bring a pro-business attitude to county government, and his initial anti-library vote appeared inconsistent with his campaign promises.)

Then Councilor Dan Schneckenburger (R-3), who had initiated the cut previously, also changed his position, saying that he hadn’t known previously that the current small business librarian was working only part-time. Library director Morgan Miller explained to the Council on Thursday that there was now a waiting list for aspiring entrepreneurs seeking help and they had to sign up many weeks in advance to schedule an appointment with the existing part-time business specialist at the library.

The Council also changed positions on $20,000 for parks maintenance, after parks director Clyde Van Dyke appeared before the panel to plead for the funds and noted his small staff had to maintain over 500 acres of parkland and playing fields.

The Council agreed to accept the Capital Improvement budget without change and with little comment, although Schneckenburger commended the plan’s provisions to move ahead with expanding infrastructure in the Route 40 area growth corridor. Lack of sewer services in the area has been a decades-long issue that has hindered economic development in the area and the new budget proposal is the first significant step toward resolving the problems.

A $1 million capital budget provision for installing an artificial turf playing field at Perryville High School, under the auspices of the county Parks and Recreation budget instead of the school’s budget allocation, drew repeated opposition from Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) during both worksessions. But a majority of Council members noted the terrible conditions of that and other fields at county schools and welcomed a long-term solution. (The capital budget allocations are not counted in setting the property tax rate, which is based on the operating budget expenses.)

Gregory, who is expected to vote against final passage of the budget, advocated $6 million in spending cuts in the new budget, including a $1 million reduction in the schools budget. But a majority of the panel rejected most of her proposals or they were cast by the wayside after information from county officials showed some proposals were based on misinformation or faulty assumptions.

Bowlsbey, who had strongly supported McCarthy’s budget from the outset, said she realized that no one on the Council was “happy” about the tax increases, but she viewed the budget decisions as necessary to end years of “kick the can” down the road policies by the county government that simply put off paying the price of county services.

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ALAN McCARTHY for COUNTY EXEC

*THANK YOU, CECIL COUNTY VOTERS!

* I am grateful for your support and I heard your voices on issues that concern you. I will work hard to create jobs, expand economic development, back our law enforcement officers in the fight against crime and drugs, and support strong schools..

*We will work together to make Cecil County "The Best It Can Be."

(Auth: Friends of Alan McCarthy, Roger Owens, Treas.)

https://www.facebook.com/Dr-Alan-McCarthy-for-Cecil-County-Executive-1633697220231788/?fref=ts