ELKTON — Despite a near-unanimous vote Tuesday night on the county budget, the Cecil County Council showed that each member has a different outlook on County Executive Alan McCarthy’s budget.
The Fiscal Year 2020 budget totals $330.5 million between operating, capital and enterprise funds. It does not spend a cent of savings to balance it, and it leaves property and income taxes where McCarthy set them two years ago.
The council approved a slight deviation from McCarthy’s proposed plan: a $72,615 cut to the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office for a phone system that would not be implemented.
It was an error in the budgeting process, but it could have been left in to be re-appropriated by the administration for the CCSO’s impending office expansion. Instead the council elected to move it back into the fund balance, requiring the request to come back to it as a future budget amendment.
Although a 4-1 vote to pass the operating budget, Capital Improvement Program and tax rate suggests that the council as a whole supported the plan, several members spoke out on McCarthy’s budget.
Freshman Councilman Bill Coutz voted for the budget, but he challenged the administration for meeting the council’s questions and comments with “resistance and disdain.”
“Questions or concerns are not an invitation that we disagree, only an attempt to gain clarification,” he said.
He went further and said that the McCarthy administration’s strong opposition to the council’s ideas were not limited to the past 10 weeks of budget season.
“I challenge the council and the executive branch to create a more open and productive environment … we can all agree that Cecil County has moved forward in a substantial way,” he said. “I believe we can do even more if we find a way back to a more cooperative relationship.”
Council Vice President Jackie Gregory was alone in voting against the budget, because of the surplus generated from the tax increases imposed in FY 2019. She tried in vain earlier to spend $1.5 million from the county’s $7.8 million in added fund balance — millions more than projected — to roll back the tax rate to the constant yield rate.
Gregory believed that the county government should be fueled by the often-touted economic growth, “not on the backs of taxpayers.”
“We were told that supporting businesses growth would not only bring economic prosperity, but lower taxes for the citizens,” Gregory said. “That can only happen when businesses’ growth fuel spending, not by a tax-and-spend policy that we’ve seen over the past few years.”
Lowering to constant yield, or a cut of more than 1 cent, would give each property owner back an average of $33. Council President Bob Meffley noted that would bring minimal relief, calling the $2.75 a month in savings enough to “buy a small Starbucks coffee” or a McDonald’s “Happy Meal.”
Gregory also had last-minute suggestions for a deep cut to the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation bduget of $480,333 across-the-board, as well as limiting the Calvert Regional Park expansion to only needed parking.
Neither idea gained traction during the council’s morning work session, with Councilman George Patchell against any reductions that would stop the implementation of an after-school program for high-poverty schools.
Freshman Councilman Al Miller took an optimistic viewpoint of the financial plan McCarthy’s team put together, saying he learned a lot through the budget process.
“What I learned is there’s a lot of really good people in this building, working for the citizens of Cecil County,” Miller said. “I think this is a good budget. We have a gold mine in this county. The economic growth is just starting, and we’re striving to do better.”
Meffley voiced his support for the budget, calling it “bare bones” compared to previous budget shake-ups like tax and sewer rate hikes. He thought it was best to plan conservatively, with the hope there could be enough to address future expenses, and in turn, the needs of Cecil County’s people.
“As a council member, my boss is not in this room. My boss is the constituents,” he said. “I don’t do things for votes. I do things for the public ... and how can I help [them], and that’s how I’m always going to be.”
On the last word of the FY 2020 budget, McCarthy pointed to this budget as continuing to lay the foundation for the county to live within its means with manageable growth.
By continuing to balance the budget with current expenses and new fiscal policies that create two reserves, he said Cecil County is poised for a stronger bond rating for potential loans, and poised for greater success.
“This has clearly indicated our financial responsibility to the citizens of Cecil County as well as the state of Maryland,” he said to business leaders at the monthly Economic Development Commission. “I’d like to thank the council for supporting the administration’s budget. We move forward, and we move forward significantly.”