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Proposed Cecil County budget changed due to COVID-19

Alan McCarthy

Flanked by staff and supporters, County Executive Alan McCarthy sat in the front row during the public budget hearing last May. The next public budget hearing for FY 2021 is May 23.

ELKTON — Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy made it clear during his proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget presentation Wednesday that the COVID-19 virus resulted in significant changes to the proposal he is submitting to the Cecil County Council for its review and consideration.

“Over the last two weeks, my budget objectives changed due to the financial uncertainty of COVID-19," McCarthy said. “We needed to step back and create a flexible and more conservative budget that will allow Cecil County to meet the county’s obligations.”

This is McCarthy’s fourth budget during his term as county executive and totals out to nearly $339.8 million, including operating and capital expenditures. As a result of the COVID-19 virus, McCarthy said this was by far the most difficult budget he and his staff put forward.

In a response to a question from the Whig after the presentation Wednesday regarding exactly how COVID-19 affected the budget, McCarthy said he directed the county finance department to reduce the original income tax projection by $2.3 million dollars due to the unknown amount of lost wages as a result of the virus.

He also said that corresponding budget cuts were made on the expenditure side that consisted of reducing allocations to Cecil County Public Schools, Cecil College and the Cecil County Public Library.

Some new positions cut

Cuts were also made to several proposed new positions, including positions for the State’s Attorney’s office, a part time animal care attendant and six positions that would have started in January 2020 in the following areas – Circuit Court peer advocate, IT Project Manager, EMS quality assessment and quality improvement, permits inspector, Ag Extension Office & Soil Conservation Office. A position with the Cecil County Liquor Board was also originally planned to be modified from a part-time to a full-time position.

McCarthy said there were also cuts to the Road Maintenance Department and step increases and third year compensation study adjustments for certain employees were cut.

The proposed budget would add three new positions: a wastewater operator, a wastewater collection system operator and an office services assistant for Cecil County Animal Services. Overall, 42 new positions were requested, according to the written budget proposal.

Even with the reductions, the FY2021 general fund budget is $208.06 million, a $5.25 million increase over FY2020, which amounts to a 2.6 percent increase.

Tax revenue and rates

The majority of the revenues for the county come from property and income tax collections. Budgeted property tax collections amount to $126.97 million, a $4.57 million increase over the current year, while income tax collections are estimated to be $63.96 million, a $640,000 increase over FY2020.

The property tax rate will remain at 1.0414 while the income tax rate will remain at three percent. McCarthy said he does not draw from the fund balance to balance his spending plan. Also, McCarthy said during his presentation that there will be no fee increases for the solid waste or wastewater enterprise funds for FY2021.

COLA and other increases

The proposed budget includes a collectively bargained for raise for law enforcement officers, which will amount to a 1.5 percent cost of living and step increase. Paramedics will also receive a bargained for 1.5 percent pay scale increase on July 1, 2020.

County employees a proposed to receive a two percent cost of living increase that would start as of the first pay period in January. The proposed budget also funds an 8.5 percent increase to the cost of the healthcare program provided to county employees and employees of Cecil College and the library.

Public school and library funding 

The proposed budget funds CCPS in the amount of $86.37 million, which is $2 million above the state’s minimum maintenance of effort, and a 1.2 percent increase over the previous year’s budget. The proposed budget includes the necessary funding for the final year of the Johnson Control energy performance contract.

As the proposed budget makes clear, the county was forced to draw back additional allocations due to the COVID-19 threat.

The CCPS capital budget also provides a second year of construction funding for the new elementary school in Chesapeake City. It also supports three projects including: replacement of the HVAC system at Cecil Manor Elementary, a boiler a Leeds Elementary and a cooling tower at Bo Manor Middle/High School.

The proposed budget also includes nearly $12.2 million for Cecil College, an increase of $578,000 over the current year’s budget. The increase in capital outlay is a result of the college receiving $200,000 in casino funding to repair the soccer fields on campus. The budget also proposes supporting the construction of a new facilities building and entrance to the college. The project is estimated to take two fiscal cycles to complete. The project will remove the old facilities building from the middle of the campus, build a new facilities maintenance facility elsewhere on campus, expand parking and create a new entrance/roadway at the northern end of the campus.

The proposed increase of budgetary funds for the library is 6.6 percent or $396,202, for a total of $6.4 million. The FY2021 capital budget has one project that totals $3,628,000, which represents the final year of construction funding for the new North East Library. The library is scheduled to open in December 2020.

Due to constraints due to COVID-19, the total personnel request for the new facility was not funded as requested. The county will have to work closely with the library to ensure the facility will open to the public as soon as construction is complete.

Casino revenues take a hit

One of the items discussed at some length by McCarthy, is the status of the Casino Fund. He noted that several projects, including the Cecil College soccer field project, $200,000 for broadband infrastructure and $200,000 for an update to the county’s LIDAR and topography maps would be put on hold for a period of time until casino revenues return.

“To be responsible, those planned projects, along with the other uses of casino funds will not be included in the budget until the revenue stream from the casino returns, as I know it will,” he said.

According to the proposed budget released Wednesday, the general capital budget is supporting the purchase of a building located at 114 North Street to accommodate the States Attorney’s Office (SAO). The office is currently located on the third floor of the Courthouse.

According to the proposed budget, the employees of the SAO have out grown the space and their current facilities are configured with multiple staff sharing a single office. The budget proposal asserts that the SAO needs more space, and that current studies indicate the need for an additional courtroom that the current building cannot accommodate unless someone moves out. The proposed CIP proposes to buy the building and start the design work to ultimately move the SAO and in later years build an additional courtroom.

Concerns for the future

McCarthy said that while the budget is now in the hands of the county council and they have the ability to modify or reduce parts of the budget, he is concerned about the county’s financial future as the crisis continues on for an indefinite amount of time.

He has advised the county’s finance department that he will be conducting regular meetings to look closely at the collections of revenues and how they compare to the budget. Once the budget is passed, McCarthy said he may request the council to pass additional budget amendments to write down revenues and expenditures based on the continued effects of COVID-19.

Now begins the time frame to schedule hearings with various county departments and agencies to present information and answer questions regarding their proposed budget requests.

A public budget hearing will be held May 23, and the council will deliberate on the budget the following week. The council is then expected to vote on the budget in June, which will then be enacted effective July 1. The adoption date can be no later than June 15, according to the county’s charter.

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