Deputies, ‘Transparency’ Advocates Challenge Hornberger at Budget ‘Town Hall’; Schools, Library Backers Join Chorus of Critics

March 6, 2022


In the past, Cecil County budget hearings usually sounded like polite beg-a-thons, with primarily schools and libraries advocates pleading for funds. But this year, a budget “town hall” meeting in Elkton was a chorus of anger and direct challenges to County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s policies, lack of spending “transparency” and short-changing of Sheriff’s deputies.

As a solid blue line of Sheriff’s deputies–some in full uniform and others in polo shirts bearing the agency’s insignia– stood in the back of the Elk Room at the county administration building on Thursday (3/3/2021), two deputies spoke for them and voiced their outrage.

“We are in a crisis,” said Michael Zack, a 19-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office and a former president of the FOP union representing deputies. Consistently low pay here, even as surrounding agencies have significantly boosted pay and are actively recruiting law enforcement officers, has led to a brain drain of experienced deputies here, he said.

“While seeking election, deputies listened to you” saying that she was “a supporter of law enforcement,” Zack told Hornberger, who was seated in the front of the room but did not respond to citizen speakers. But Zack said that “townships in Pennsylvania” and even nearby Kent County are offering significantly higher pay and benefits.

Jeff White, with six years as a deputy here, said the county was on track to lose “75 percent” of his training academy class as deputies have moved on to other higher-paying agencies. He said recruitment of new deputies to replace them is hampered by low pay and benefits here.

Several weeks ago, Cecil County Sheriff Scott Adams delivered a similar message to the County Council, telling Councilors he is losing many experienced deputies to agencies in Delaware and elsewhere in Maryland due to non-competitive pay and benefits here, despite pay boosts provided under a collective bargaining agreement reached last year.

Even when Hornberger sought to funnel more funds to the Sheriff’s office in recent months, deputies say she botched the job. Hornberger used state funds, passed on by Gov. Hogan from federal COVID relief money, to initiate a signing bonus for experienced deputies from other counties as of 10/1/2021. But that move infuriated long-suffering Cecil County deputies who felt that their dedicated service and risking their lives during the pandemic was being ignored. Hogan’s aid plan provided that the money be used to shore up emergency responders and did not specify only new hires should be given funds.

Faced with a backlash, Hornberger used a second round of Hogan aid to provide $1,000 retention bonuses for current deputies as of 11/1/2021.

But her current Fiscal 2022 budget also slashed $496,352 from the Public Safety Pension Plan, or a 17 percent reduction from the previous administration’s Fiscal 2021 budget, and Hornberger has done nothing to restore those funds despite a huge current budget surplus. Under federal rules for COVID aid, local pension funds are not eligible to receive such money.

Several speakers challenged Hornberger on spending “transparency” issues, saying she had been evasive on budget questions and secretive about how the county is spending federal COVID relief money provided directly to the county.

Heidi Gualtney said she and other residents “wonder when you are going to start spending” federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to benefit county residents and businesses harmed by the COVID pandemic. She questioned statements by county Finance Director James Appel that “you’re in no hurry to spend” the aid funds. (Cecil County received $9.9 million in ARPA aid last year and is slated to receive another $9.9 million in the next few months.) She also challenged the use of earlier federal CARES act money to renovate Hornberger’s executive office suite.

Jamie Marshall told Hornberger that “you campaigned on a balanced budget and not using ‘Rainy Day’” reserve funds. But in fact, days after the Fiscal 2022 budget was passed by the County Council, “you asked for $2.1 million” for county schools out of reserve accounts. She said the executive should have used budget surplus funds instead of raiding emergency reserves.

(The money was directed to county schools to cover a state ‘maintenance of effort’ requirement, after Hornberger had only given the schools a whopping $1 increase over the previous year’s budget. Hornberger claimed that she was unaware of new requirements, although many other counties revised their budget proposals well before final adoption to comply with the rules. But including the required $2.1 million in the actual budget would have more than wiped out the penny cut on the property tax rate that Hornberger touted as her biggest accomplishment.)

Doris Obenshein, of Cecilton, voiced support for amendments to the County Charter that have been proposed by the County Council to require creation of a “Board of Estimates” to oversee, and disclose to the public, major spending proposals and real estate purchases or leases. “We clearly need oversight…and greater accountability,” she said.

Multiple speakers supported the county libraries, which were a particular “target” in Hornberger’s current budget. Ken Wiggins, a former board president of the Friends of the Library, said, “We took a 5.7percent reduction last year” and “that was more than any other agency.” The cuts were “mean-spirited” and “targeted” against the libraries, he said.

Several Cecilton, Earleville and Chesapeake City residents complained that due to the budget cuts the two south county libraries were only open three days a week and for limited hours.

A large contingent of Rising Sun High School athletes stood at attention as Christie Stephens, vice president of the Board of Education, noted that Rising Sun is slated to be the only county high school without an upgraded athletic field as all other schools have, or are getting, new turf fields.

The state Board of Public Works recently approved more than $1 million to build a new turf field at Elkton High School. That money is coming from state parks funds, channeled through the county Parks Department which has maintenance and oversight duties for school athletic fields under an agreement created under the previous county administration.

Both Elkton and Rising Sun were slated for new fields under capital budget plans of the previous administration but Hornberger did not include any funds for the projects in her current budget.

Hornberger must present her Fiscal 2023 budget to the County Council by April 1. The Council will then review the budget on a department-by-department basis but the Council may only cut spending and cannot increase or re-allocate money in the budget.

(NOTE TO READERS: The county government did NOT post a videorecording of the town hall meeting on its website as of three days after the session. However, CECIL TV did record the session and will be postng its own exclusive video soon. Visit their website at

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