(UPDATED) Meffley’s Budget Guts Win $ for School Security, Other Councilors Cluck Like Backyard Chickens; Exec’s Pals Get Pay Boosts

May 27, 2022


The horror of the Texas school shooting had not yet reached national network newscasts when the Cecil County Council convened Tuesday (5/24/2022) to consider County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s proposed Fiscal 2023 budget. Four members were unwilling to offer any amendments or changes to the budget but Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) had a small surprise up his sleeve: a deal he cut hours before with Hornberger to provide $240,000 to county schools “small capital projects” outside the regular budget framework in a supplemental spending proposal to be submitted to the Council later in the year.

That amount is the precise figure needed to construct a secure vestibule at one county school. But it still leaves multiple county school buildings without the security upgrades deemed necessary by school facilities experts. Hornberger refused to fund any secure vestibule upgrades sought last year and her new budget only provides for one. But funding and timing uncertainties on the budgeted vestibule project and the promise made to Meffley mean that the two projects won’t be built until next summer, according to CCPS officials.

It didn’t have to be that way. The state Comptroller announced in late March that Cecil County was getting a nearly $1 million windfall payment, delivered immediately. (The money comes from the state underestimating certain business tax revenues.) But there was no mention of the windfall by the Hornberger administration in its budget discussions. The windfall would pay for secure vestibules at four additional schools.

But Hornberger had enough money to pay for major pay raises for her top political allies in her new budget, according to documents obtained by CECIL TIMES.

County Attorney Lawrence Scott again tops the payroll list of county employees, getting a salary of $152,278. The Annapolis political consultant, with ties to state GOP officials, was hired by Hornberger a little over a year ago at $130,000, despite never having set foot in a Maryland courtroom or even entering a written ‘appearance” on behalf of a client, according to the state courts database. Since becoming Cecil County attorney, his name now shows up in written court records as representing the county in several guardianship civil cases, which usually involve making medical and other decisions on behalf of elderly or disabled people who cannot manage their own affairs.

Another Annapolis political consultant, James Appel, the county Finance Director, will get a salary of $140,874. CECIL TIMES has previously reported that Appel only shows up to work in Elkton four days a week and has continued to operate a political consulting business that earned him over $41,000 in 2021, largely from the state Republican Party and GOP elected officials. {SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2022/01/cecil-county-finance-chief-rakes-in-annapolis-political-consulting-as-taxpayers-pay-six-figure-salary-council-pleads-for-budget-numbers-aid-accountability-but-gets-belated-or-limited-answers/ ]

The payroll list also shows that Wayne Tome, chief of the Department of Emergency Services, is being paid $137,765; and Steven Overbay, listed on the payroll record as head of Economic Development but in fact serving as the “acting Director of Administration” for more than the past six months, is being paid $135,268. Hornberger recently got the County Council to extend his tenure in an “acting” status for another four months—the maximum time limit for an acting department head. The county Charter also requires the Director of Administration to be a resident of Cecil County. Overbay lives in Harford County.

Meanwhile, the horrific Texas school shootings highlight the need for enhanced school security but Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) have been working on the problem for years. All CCPS buildings now have locked door entrances, under security improvements made under the previous county administration. But depending on a school’s design, secure vestibules are needed to add another layer of security so that visitors, or intruders, cannot gain access to direct entry points.

CCPS requested funds for security construction work at all eight remaining schools that still need secure vestibules but Hornberger’s new budget only provided funds for one project: $300,000 for Rising Sun Elementary School. That was at least some improvement over the previous fiscal year, when the same list was proposed by CCPS but Hornberger denied funds for all of them.

In the proposed new Fiscal 2023 budget, the seven schools that were denied security fixes are: Bainbridge Elementary, Bay View Elementary, Charlestown Elementary, Conowingo Elementary, North East Elementary, North East High and the Providence school. Each of those schools’ security work would cost $240,000. In addition, CCPS had requested an allocation of $178,000 for architectural and engineering services to cover all of the remaining projects.

Perry Willis, executive director for support services with CCPS, said that under the previous administration there had been informal discussions long before an actual budget was presented to the Council on how much “small capital budget” funds might be available. (“Small Cap” programs are included in the operating budget funded annually, not as part of larger long term construction projects that are financed by bonds.) The early ‘heads-up’ gave CCPS time to begin planning and design work so that a project was “ready to go out to bid” by the time the budget was enacted, Willis said. In that way, work could begin early in the summer, while schools were closed.

But now there will be insufficient time even to begin work on the Rising Sun project this summer and the as yet undetermined timeline for another possible supplemental spending plan means that both projects won’t be able to begin until next summer, Willis said. He added that it will be up to the elected Board of Education to decide which school will receive the Meffley-proposed $240,000 allocation.

The County Council’s consideration of Hornberger’s budget and decision to rubber-stamp it at Tuesday’s worksession took less than 30 minutes–vastly less time than the weeks and weeks of multi-hours meetings on recent legislation to allow small property owners to have backyard chickens. And some Council members sounded a bit like clucking hens on the budget—chirping but no bite.

“I don’t have any amendments,” said Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2). “This is the executive’s budget and it is balanced.” But he did express concerns about the Hornberger administration’s past practices of using reserve funds to pay for projects mid-year without full budget transparency.

Councilor Al Miller (R-3) said he was “very concerned” about the county’s self-insured healthcare coverage for employees and estimated reductions in costs that might not be supported by actual expenses in the upcoming budget year. He also said that he felt the county could “do better” than a second consecutive year of just providing the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” funding of CCPS. But he offered no potential cuts to other programs in the overall budget that could be re=allocated to CCPS. . Under the county Charter, the schools are the ONLY budget item that the Council can increase, as long as spending in other programs is cut to offset the education increases.

As usual, Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5), Hornberger’s close political ally, fully supported the budget as “very lean.” And appointed Councilor Donna Culberson (R-4) agreed, as usual, with Gregory, saying “I support the budget as is.”

Then Meffley played his hand. He had been concerned about CCPS having to lay off some para-professional school aides, especially after the Council heard nearly tearful testimony from Carolyn Teigland, associate superintendent for education services, about the serious mental health issues facing students returning to the schools after the disruptions of the pandemic.

Meffley said in an interview that he had come up with a list of potential budget cuts that could yield offsetting money to be given to CCPS, under the Charter provision that makes education the only area of the budget that the Council can increase, as long as other spending categories are reduced to cover the costs. But he couldn’t find majority support on the Council.

So he cut his deal with the county executive, for a small post-budget allocation for the schools. And he made a point of announcing it publicly at the worksession and insisting that County Finance Director Appel confirm the deal: “We have agreed to put the resolution in,” Appel said.

Even if the Hornberger administration wanted to renege on its deal, the massacre of children and teachers in Texas makes such a move politically impossible now.

Dealt a fiscal conundrum, Meffley played his cards well and showed leadership in a difficult situation. For that reason, CECIL TIMES awards him a “Gold Star” for budget courage. In more than a decade of covering county budget issues, only former Councilor George Patchell has received our Gold Star for budget courage and leadership.

UPDATED: As expected, the Council ratified Hornberger’s budget unanimously at a 6/7/2022 legislative session, with minimal discussion.

[SEE previous CECIL TIMES report on overall details of the Hornberger budget here: http://ceciltimes.com/2022/04/cecil-co-exec-hornberger-budget-gives-penny-property-tax-cut-bare-state-minimum-to-schools-deputies-get-blue-ribbon-but-no-green-pay-boost/ ]

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Fine Maryland Wines
Proudly made in Cecil County