Cecil County Exec Candidate Forum: Politics, Pauses, Policy; Questions on Budget, Land Use, Route 40 Ugliness

March 3, 2020

Unlike national political debates in this election year that have often turned into rhetorical slugfests and personal attacks, a candidate’s forum for the four Republican candidates for Cecil County Executive was a mostly polite question and answer session, with candidates not engaging directly with one another. The most interesting moments came when some candidates had long pauses in their responses and one struggled to describe the programs and policies she would be in charge of if elected.

The candidates’ forum, held at Cecil College on 2/27/2020, was hosted this year by the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce, the Cecil County Classroom Teachers Association, and BEPAC, the Business and Education Partnership Advisory Council– which consists of executives of major employers in the county that support education and job training efforts. In the past, the Chamber alone hosted county candidate forums.

The moderator of the latest forum was Mike Ratchford, a Gore executive, chairman of the county’s Economic Development Commission and the Chamber’s government relations committee representative. Ratchford has served as moderator of past candidate forums and once again he was a calm, reasoned voice in posing questions to candidates and maintaining order and time limits on candidates’ responses..At the outset, he warned the audience of about 200 people that the candidates should be treated with respect and that “catcalls” would not be tolerated.

But the broader base of questioners this year, including teachers, led to at least one odd question and there was a new, confusing, round-robin format for answering the questions. All candidates were asked the same questions, BUT instead of having each candidate respond, in sequence, to a question, the questions were rotated throughout the evening. So a question on the budget was posed to one candidate, but then the next candidate was asked a different question. As a result, there was no continuity in the discussions and no clear way for listeners to readily compare and contrast candidates’ answers to the same question.

The candidates only included Republicans who have filed for county executive in the April GOP primary. A Democrat is unopposed in his party’s primary and will face the winner of the Republican primary in the November general election. Appearing at the forum were incumbent county executive Alan McCarthy, a retired veterinarian and businessman ; Bill Coutz, a current member of the County Council; Ewing McDowell, a former farmer and livestock exporter who now works for the state government on agri-business issues; and Danielle Hornberger, a former substitute teacher and now a part-time constituent services aide to US Rep Andy Harris (R-1)

The questions posed to the candidates involved the county budget, the county’s comprehensive plan for land use, education, public safety and why is Route 40 so ugly.


Perhaps the most important question of the evening was posed by Scott Sturgill, a BEPAC member and a longtime financial services executive with local banks: “Do you believe the current tax rates should be lowered, stay the same, or be raised. Please explain. If you believe taxes should be lowered, by how much? How much revenue would be lost due to this tax reduction? What departments or services will you reduce?”

While Sturgill’s question was specific and sought detailed answers, most of the candidates replied in broad generalities and did not identify what programs they would cut or how they would pay for their agenda.

In McCarthy’s first budget shortly after taking office, he proposed a five-cent increase on the property tax rate which had not been boosted in many years. As a result, the property tax bill rose by $100 a year on a home valued at $200,000. He also boosted the local “piggyback” income tax rate from 2.8 percent to 3 percent. Those steps produced the first fully balanced county budget in over two decades, with spending and revenues balanced without draining emergency reserve funds. Those tax rates were frozen in his second budget last year, and remained the same again in the current Fiscal 2020 budget.

McCarthy also initiated, and got the County Council to vote unanimously to approve, new budget rules that set aside 10 percent of county budget allocations to an emergency “rainy day” fund, as endorsed by County Council budget advisers and bond rating agencies, instead of the 7.5 percent figure used in the past. He also created a separate budget “reassignment” account that can be tapped, with Council approval, to pay for needed projects during the year if revenues come in at higher than anticipated levels. (That “pay as you go” fund amounts to a family saving up for a new car or vacation before going into debt to pay for it, or the old adage, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

As recordation and other fees came in above budget due to new businesses expediting their construction plans and “personal property” fees charged on expanded business inventories, the county was able to tap the special budget assignment fund recently to provide an extra $3 million in road repairs and to authorize additional equipment for volunteer fire companies, bringing the fire services up to their full aid request for the second budget year in a row.,

During the forum, McCarthy defended his budget and said he did not support a “rollback” of tax rates as at least one of his opponents demands. He pointed out that 17 other counties in the state have the same or higher income tax rate, If there were a tax “rollback,” McCarthy said “we would have to decrease services” such as support for education, the Sheriff’s Office and emergency services.

“We are in a solid financial position” and “capable of paying our bills,” as well as investing in “quality of life” projects such as parks, he said. “I will not have to raise taxes anymore,” because of the expansion of business, industry and jobs in the county on his watch, McCarthy added.

McDowell said he supported efforts in Annapolis to turn over property assessments that set values on homes and land to local county governments, instead of a state agency as it is handled now. He said it would benefit landowners because they would be “dealing with people they know.” He said the county should explore “public private partnerships” to deliver some services. But he said he did “not have a specific answer for how much [taxes] should be lowered.”

Coutz, a member of the County Council who has voted in support of McCarthy’s two most recent budget plans, said the issues were not as simple as raising or lowering taxes. But he said that the rise in revenues showed that “we’ve overtaxed our citizens.” He said he would look at spending in county departments to find “areas where overspending has occurred”

However, Coutz said “I don’t believe there is an answer at this point in time.on taxes” and that citizens want to see “more bank for their buck,”

Hornberger has made it a cornerstone of her campaign to “rollback” all of the tax hikes of McCarthy’s first budget. “I do believe taxes should be lowered and I have in fact done the crunching of the numbers,” she said. She claimed that the revenue increases from new businesses amounted to a “surplus” and that “citizens have been overtaxed.”

She said the tax boosts could be rescinded and “We would not need to cut services as some fearmongers would have you believe.”


QUESTION: The citizens of Cecil County followed state prescribed procedures to create and adopt the Comprehensive Plan to guide development within county borders. First, what is your assessment of the Comprehensive Plan and second do you believe there is a need for change and if yes, what change?

(The county adopted a broad Comprehensive Plan ten years ago after a more than 40-member panel of citizens worked for over a year to produce the document that formally established the “growth corridor” limiting industrial expansion to the area between Route 40 and Interstate 95. The plan also expanded land protections for rural and agricultural areas in the northern and southern sectors of the county to prevent development there.)

McDowell said that although the state does not require an update every ten years, “When elected, that’s the first thing I will do: go through a full comprehensive plan review.” He did not specify what changes he thought should be made but said an appointed citizens’ group should be named to conduct the process.

Coutz said the current plan had “done a good job” in directing business expansion to the growth corridor while preserving the “rural imprint of Cecil County” in the north and south areas. He said business and industry is attracted by the proximity to I95 and that tax incentives are not necessary to attract new employers.

Hornberger went down a long and winding road in her answer. “I do believe there is need for change to start off with…… we have a growth corridor and it is for economic growth and we have another area or areas that are labeled for different things,” she said. “We do have areas that are meant just for agriculture and we have areas that are designated specifically for economic growth and the like.”

“I think we need to take care and foster this beautiful county,” she said. “Our county is beautiful, we have a rural culture that I don’t think needs to be segmented into one specific area and another specific area and then one corridor where we just throw up our hands in the air and say hey whatever can come as long as it gains us revenue.” She said the county should be “thoughtful” about warehouses coming to the growth area.

McCarthy said the plan “is a living document” and its existing provisions, to protect rural conservation areas including farms and forests, “need to be kept in place to retain the character” of rural areas. By directing new business as well as housing to the growth corridor, it saves money to concentrate needed infrastructure in just one area, he said. With the significant business expansion and creation of 4,000 new jobs during his term, “we have expanded our tax base tremendously,” he said, and “by doing what we’re doing right now we will not have to raise taxes for the foreseeable future.”

QUESTION: What do you think are the most significant public safety issues that must be confronted? Please explain your answer.

Hornberger took another long and winding road in her response, saying the drug problem is “something that is not an easy fix and something that we need to take a good hard look at and come to a position of strength and understanding.” She suggested meetings with state “delegates and senators” and said Harford county has programs “answering the response of the citizens who are in desperate need of our outreach and they are not getting it. “She also said that public safety responders should be “well represented by their county.”

McDowell said that “faith based” groups should be given a greater role in reaching out to drug abusers. He also said that first responders should be supported “financially and with the bully pulpit to give them the respect they deserve.” After a long pause, he concluded his answer, saying “thank you.”

McCarthy said that heroin use and mental health issues go hand-in-hand and that efforts were being made to identify problems “early in people’s lives.” He said he supported efforts by schools and the Sheriff to educate students on the dangers of drugs. “Most of the crime we’re seeing in the county” is drug-related, he said, and the detention center is “full of people who are either drug addicts or committed crimes to procure their drugs.”

Coutz said that “substance abuse” was a critical problem and that volunteer firefighters and their ambulance services were “the first line of defense.” He said the county should “make sure we are adequately up-front funding” those services and problems with a shortage of 911 dispatchers and bad work schedules should be addressed.


It was the wild card question of the night and brought some interesting answers, ranging from landscaping and potholes to a broader discussion of business economics and how improvements in the growth corridor and infrastructure will lead to eyesores being replaced by more valuable businesses.

QUESTION: Some sections of road front on Route 40 from Perryville to Elkton are not the most aesthetically pleasing. Can anything be done to correct this and if so, what?

McCarthy said that for years, without adequate infrastructure such as sewer and natural gas lines, Route 40 became home to lower value property and businesses. But, as the county moves forward under his administration to install infrastructure, “these properties will increase in value” and attract new, higher value businesses that will “take pride” in their properties. He also urged people to “stop littering.”

McDowell said there were businesses such as recycling centers that provide “a valuable service.” If the county wants to see changes, the county should find them “a nice safe place” to relocate, “not just shutting them down.” After a long pause, he said, “I think that’s a pretty good answer” and drew the only laughter of the evening from the audience.

Coutz cited potholes.on county roads and said that if roads were better businesses might be more prone to improve the “aesthetics” of their property. He said that the infrastructure that affects most citizens, the roads, have been “let go.”

Hornberger said “we have some not so aesthetically pleasing parts of Route 40, this is true.” She said the county needed to be “responsible” to businesses in the area because they provide jobs to local residents.


QUESTION: The largest segment of the County’s operating budget is allocated for education. Included in this allocation are public school system, public library system and Cecil College. Does the Cecil County operating budget provide sufficient funding for our local education institutions? Please provide a rationale. And are the graduates of Cecil County Public Schools and Cecil College college or career ready?

McCarthy said that local educational institutions were “not funded to the degree they should have been” in the past. He said he doesn’t believe that “austerity brought prosperity” when deciding how to support critical programs such as education. Investing in the schools “will create citizens to lead the county into the future, and very proudly.”

McDowell warned of the looming funding burdens to be imposed on the counties under the pending Kirwan Commission recommendations for vastly expanded state and local spending on education. He said he thought the schools were “well-funded” now but he advocated more after-school programs to keep youths out of trouble.

Hornberger said “I support the Board of Education…as long as they spend within our means.” The Kirwan initiatives are “looming over us,” she said, and “I don’t have a crystal ball but we do need to be concerned about these things.” She said she supported vocational training and apprenticeships.

Coutz- said county teachers “have done an amazing job” and he thought the schools had adequate funds. He commended Cecil College’s nursing program, which has a 100 percent rate for students to pass nursing licensing tests.

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2 Responses to Cecil County Exec Candidate Forum: Politics, Pauses, Policy; Questions on Budget, Land Use, Route 40 Ugliness

  1. Douglas Donley on March 4, 2020 at 4:27 pm

    The full Q&A session can be seen at https://www.cecil.tv/videosii/cecil-tv-2020-chamber-of-commerce-candidates-forum-county-executive/

    For better understanding, we put the questions and responses in a more comprehensible order.

  2. Ron Lobos on March 5, 2020 at 11:19 am

    From my point of view, McCarthy had a good understanding of the wants and needs of the County. He was speaking from his success stories over the past 3 years where he put Cecil County on course to strong Economic Development. This strong economic development has made it possible for all the candidates to refrain from tax increases in the foreseeable future. For me, choosing the best candidate for County Executive was easy to see. There’s only one qualified choice, Dr. Alan McCarthy.

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