budget disaster on the horizon in Cecil County

Budget Disaster on the Horizon in Cecil County

Note: I am not employed by any of the entities mentioned in this article.

The sky is about to fall in Cecil County.
Maybe I’m wrong.
I hope I’m wrong.
I’d be happy to go down in history as the Chicken Little of Cecil County.
But I’m probably not wrong.

Thursday night is the unofficial kick-off to the county budget cycle with a town hall for public comment on the budget hosted by new County Executive Danielle Hornberger. According to the press release, the agenda will be similar to past events hosted by other county executives with opening comment from the executive and a presentation about the county’s finances preceding public comment.

When does the sky fall?

The sky will fall on or about April 1 when the County Executive presents the first budget of her fledgling administration to the County Council. That will be the first time we see her concrete plans for the future of Cecil County and my fear is that in order to make good on her campaign promise to reduce taxes she will cripple county departments by slashing their budgets.

What happens after the budget is introduced?

Once the County Council receives the budget from the County Executive they can only cut from the budget, they can’t increase the bottom line for the proposed budget. This means in order to increase the budget for one department, the budget for another department (or departments) would need to be reduced to offset it. In the past, the council hasn’t made significant changes to the budgets from previous county executives and I’m not sure what it would take for them to be moved to make large scale changes to the budget.

What departments are at risk of budget cuts?

Honestly, every department is at risk since this is the first budget prepared by the new County Executive and, wherein in the past, the County Administrator had decades of service and the Director of Finance was also sufficiently experienced, the county executive brought in new people in those roles when she was sworn in in December so we will lose some of the consistency in budgeting that we had come to expect. With no previous experience with the county budget and what appears to be a desire to undo anything previous County Executive Alan McCarthy might have done, there is no way to predict what that budget might look like.

Education-related funding at risk

Based on statements County Executive Hornberger made during her campaign, I’m especially concerned about education funding, including Cecil County Public Schools, Cecil County Public Library, and Cecil College.

Here’s one such quote from an article in the Cecil Whig:

“A recent county budget shows $6 million was designated for local libraries (I’m not even including the $19 million in county funding for the new library). As a former educator, I think libraries and books are important-just not six million dollars important.’

What price would she put on a nationally-awarded library system? We’re about to see and I’m afraid it won’t be good.

Cecil County Public Schools, Cecil County Public Library, and Cecil College all rely on the county for a majority of their funding each year and have no taxing authority (schools do have taxing authority in some areas outside of Maryland).

How much does Cecil County contribute to the annual operating budget for certain entities?

Cecil College$12 million
Cecil County Public Library$6 million
Cecil County Public Schools$86 million
FY2021 Budget in Brief

Cecil County Public Schools is perennially under attack from some in the community who don’t agree with the level of funding the system receives from the county. They seem to be missing the fact that Cecil County is always among the counties with the lowest funding per student in the state (I think we were 17th out of 24 in FY 2020). It’s always the same handful of people making claims about wasteful spending but, in the seven years I’ve been following the budget, that fringe has never identified an example of such spending.

But this year will be different. While the state has a maintenance of effort law requiring the county to fund the school system at the same level as the previous year, that funding is calculated per student, so declining enrollment could mean significantly less funding.

Meanwhile, the Cecil County Public Library and Cecil College rely heavily on funding from the county but I don’t believe there are laws similar to maintenance of effort to protect these entities from potential budget cuts.

What can you do?

If you’ve ever advocated for any part of the county budget, I implore you to advocate for that entity again now..before the County Executive introduces her budget.

Advocate early and advocate often–it’s the only chance we have.