Sunday, May 31, 2015

One Step Up, Two Steps Back: A Fewer-Than-15-Steps Guide to a Budget Crisis

I have enjoyed the time off from writing budget blogs. I finished my submission to renew my National Board Certification, and my husband and I glammed up the yard for the North East Women’s Civic League’s annual Secret Garden Tour (an event that supports literacy efforts in the county, including one of my favorite public services, the public library). I had hoped that, because the County Executive has done the right thing in her budget proposal, the County Council would do the right thing as well. That has not happened yet, so, to quote Shakespeare, once more into the breach!

It’s easy to be cynical about government and politics. Most of the public assigns nasty motives to nearly everything that elected officials do. I am not cynical about government or politics. This spring’s county budget debate has shown us officials with integrity and a willingness to change.  Nonetheless, the fight is not over, and some officials still need convincing.

Here’s a timeline of sorts to explain our current situation and why taking action in the next two days is critical.

Step 1:
For the past several years, we had a dysfunctional County Council that not only engaged in embarrassingly unprofessional public shenanigans but also put our community on a perilous financial course. Their driving force was a philosophy that encouraged the consumption of public services without a willingness to pay for them.

Step 2:
Last year, tired of that Council’s hijinks, the political party that claims them cleaned house during primary season with a slate of new candidates for most of those seats who were purportedly more logical, more professional, and more reasonable in their approach to our civic concerns than the people they replaced.

Step 3:
Thus, with our new County Executive, our new Strategic Plan, and our new Council, voters (citizens of both parties) who had tired of that previously mortifying style of governance rejoiced that perhaps we would see a new type of government that responded to the public’s concerns and would conduct public business with professionalism, reason, and decorum.

Step 4:
The January 2015 budget forum alerted the public services that, at least in terms of county finances, the old mentality of “all public spending = bad; all tax cuts = good” still reigned supreme at the county building. Motivated by that awareness, advocates for those public services (advocates for the public schools and the public library being the most numerous) began an unprecedented public campaign of emails, letters, phone calls, and social media platforms to remind our public officials that we believed they are now in office to change that approach.

Step 5:
Those advocacy groups began putting forth as much factual information as possible concerning the current crisis in all areas. The public schools, in particular, demonstrated not only their significant financial need but also that they have done more to streamline costs (see page 44), especially in major cost areas such as energy use and employee benefits, than any other facet of the county budget. Each serious issue in these departments was directly caused by the inadequate funding provided by the previous County Council, and only additional funding from that same body would begin to turn those problems around.

[For the Angry Ones at the May 12 budget forum who bemoaned “throwing money at the school problem,” here’s the thing about cause and effect: problems that are created by a lack of money require money to fix them.]

Step 6:
At the County Council’s budget forum in March, each of those five members promised not to cut the education budget once they received it (whatever it was to be) from the County Executive.

Step 7:
In April, the County Executive submitted her budget to the Council. In it, she did not give any public service (including the schools) everything that it requested. Instead, she compromised. She tried to address the most urgent crises and proposed a 2% increase in property taxes to pay for those serious needs.

[Readers of this blog may remember that I supported a 10-11% tax increase in my last budget post to address these concerns, an increase that would have amounted to the cost of two movie tickets a month for the average family. Her tax increase involves merely 4 movie tickets per household for the entire year (approximately $55 a year). Her proposal is a clear attempt to address the serious financial issues that the previous Council bestowed on public services without trying to solve them all in one budget cycle. This is not the work of a “tax and spend liberal,” as the Angry Ones have attempted to spin it. Given our county history, I can see why those citizens may not be able to recognize it, but this is a centrist approach; this is what a compromise looks like.]

Step 8:
The priorities in the County Executive’s budget clearly  address real and immediate needs regarding our most serious community concerns. All of the public services are necessary to address any of those problems involving public safety and health, crime, drug abuse, and boosting the economy: schools, libraries, law enforcement, public health, parks, and even the county government itself. Thus, because this budget request was so incredibly reasonable, naturally the Angry Ones lost their minds.

Step 9:
The voices that got us into this mess have been unwilling to compromise and unwilling to admit their responsibility for how bad things are. All of the public services knew that the County Executive’s budget did not address everything that it needed to, but they acknowledged that it was a step in the right direction. The Angry Ones, though, still—unbelievably still—seem to have many Council members’ ears and are driving the debate.

Step 10:
In response to the Angry Ones, several County Council members have threatened to turn their backs not only on that vow not to cut school funding (only Mrs. Bowlsbey has remained steadfast in her promise to date) but also to be more logical and reasonable voices in county government. They are not only suggesting cutting the public services to abolish the 2% tax increase; they also (and I cannot believe I am typing this statement) are suggesting cutting even more from the budget possibly to cut taxes AGAIN to appease the tax-fetishist Angry Ones.

Their list of proposed cuts has changed from day to day and has involved everything from renovation of dangerous school tennis courts to maintenance on county AED machines (they decided to fund the AEDs, at least for now, by cutting money that would have led to long-term savings on the overall budget, further evidence that none of these cuts should be happening--and can you believe that those tennis courts and AED machines were ever on the chopping block?). Note that public safety issues are on the line here. This is no joke. If you want to hear how alarming these discussions have become, listen to the audiotape of the last session. One hopes that the Council will see that if they have to cut items such as these to appease their least civic-minded citizens, perhaps appeasing those citizens is not the right thing to do.

Step 11:
In further steps toward financial insolvency, the Council does not want to keep the tax rate at the constant yield. The constant yield is the process by which a government ensures that its tax calculation is in line with current property values so that the government can assure that it is bringing in at least as much revenue this year as it did last year. The Council’s rejection of this calculation is the equivalent of your family trying to plan for next year’s budget with the same or additional expenses while knowing that you will be bringing in less money than the year before. It is one of the most irresponsible financial moves that a municipality can make.

Step 12:
The Angry Ones’ campaign has been aided by members of our local media (who have underreported the number of public services advocates at budget forums and have posted patently false, intentionally misleading, and stunningly misinformed editorials depicting the public schools as the villain in this situation). The Angry Ones, despite their small numbers and despite their culpability in creating this situation, continue to hold major political sway with our officials. Why is that? They have not earned that.

Step 13:
Citizens who are outraged (as they should be) by this situation and have sent emails to the Council in that vein are receiving responses from several County Council members that increasingly have the tone of “How dare you challenge the Council on this?”. We dare because we care and because you are, after all, public officials.

Step 14:
The Council has stated that it will vote on their budget proposal on Tuesday, June 2. From the publicly available information, two possible agendas appear to be the most likely. Both of them involve maintaining the same mindset of the previous Council members.

  • Bad idea #1: “We need everything in this budget, and we promised not to cut the schools, but everyone is mad at us, so we should cut them, too, even though we all know that is a terrible idea because our latest list of cuts is clearly dangerous.”
  • Bad idea #2: “We need everything in this budget, but the Angry Ones have threatened to vote us out of office if they don’t get a tax cut, so we better cut more than the $2 million tax increase even though the long-term consequences of that action will be devastating across the board because our ideas for cuts make absolutely no sense.”

If either of these scenarios becomes the final outcome, I challenge anyone to tell me how this budget situation is significantly different than if we had not elected new Council members last year.

Here’s the good news (there actually is good news): The Council does not have to decide any of this on June 2. They have until June 15, at which point, if the Council has not passed their own plan, the County Executive’s budget automatically becomes law. They have several options that can (at least initially) save the day, save face, and save their political careers.

  • Good idea #1: The Council can vote to support the County Executive’s budget in its entirety. They can state publicly that they are standing up to the Angry Ones at last, standing up to that outdated bullying mindset, to do the right thing. The Council would be heroes to the majority of Cecil County voters.
  • Good idea #2: The Council can vote for the County Executive’s budget by casting her (and those of us who have been vocal about advocacy for public services) as the villain: “Hey, we don’t like this situation, but she started it, and now the public outcry is so bad that we have to send it through. Boy, we just hate this so much, but the public has spoken. Did you see the budget forum at Elkton High when 80% of the audience stood up to show support for public schools and libraries? Dude, that scared us. We audibly gasped. We’re surrounded.” The County Executive gave the Council the political cover they needed to do the right thing. It was a further sign of her integrity and her leadership. It was remarkable. It was a gift. It is difficult to believe that they would not accept that gift.
  • Good idea #3: The Council can debate and hand-wring and throw tantrums and be nasty (as they did last week) right up until June 15, and then let that date pass. They can let the County Executive’s budget go into effect. The Council takes little blame for the budget (“We just couldn’t agree on what to cut” or “I wanted to get a tax cut through but just couldn’t get the votes”), and they can take the credit for the county not falling apart to a greater extent on their watch this year.

County Executive Tari Moore has shown a determination not to go down the same disturbing road again. Her budget was not everything I wanted for our community (if you read this blog, you know that), but she did what she could in the name of doing the right thing (despite enormous pressure from you-know-who), and she listened to the public. The tone-deafness to public opinion that several Council members have shown in the aftermath of her proposal is of great concern. How are we stuck in this place again?

I’ll close with three things that this budget cycle has shown us that the County Council cannot do:
  • The Council cannot put us into an even worse financial situation (bad ideas 1 and 2) and think that we are going to let them get away with it. The Angry Ones aren’t the only ones who are loud now, and we outnumber them. Brace yourselves.
  • The Council cannot pretend that tax cuts and not paying for public services are part of the Strategic Plan. Too many people have read that document now.
  • The Council cannot continue to pit various public services against each other in a cynical attempt to dodge responsibility for this mess. Their public statements have motivated all public services to be more vocal in the budget debate.

Readers, time is running out.
  1. Email County Executive Tari Moore and tell her that you respect her use of logic, reason, and responsiveness to make decisions. She’s a leader. Let’s show her that we know that.
  2. Email Joyce Bowlsbey and thank her for remaining steadfast on public education and not cowering to pressure from the Angry Ones. Tell her to stay strong—tell her that you have her back.
  3. Email Mr. Hodge, Mr. Patchell, Mr. McCarthy, and Mr. Schneckenberger and let them know how much you value Cecil County, how much you value public services, how much you value leadership, and how much you hope they will change this annual budget dynamic. Ask them to fund the County Executive’s budget. Ask them to do the right thing, and let them know that you will support them in the next election if they move (and continue to move) in the right direction.

We have the power to fix this situation, Cecil County, but silence is not the way to do it. Please--I'm begging you--act now.  

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