Freeman: Credibility Is My Legacy

December 02, 1990|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff writer

If you ask County Executive Habern W. Freeman what he thinks his most significant accomplishment was in his eight years steering county government, he'll sum it up in one word: credibility.

"When I came into office in 1982, Harford County was perceived in the state as being almost an embarrassment," said Freeman.

"We had an image as fumblers. I think that's changed. We're considered efficient, and we're considered to be tough competitors who could steal your industry away. To have a government that's effective; that's the thing I'm most proud of."

Freeman, 48, is the third executive to serve since 1972, the year Harford adopted a charter form of government. The Joppatowne resident is known for his sometimes colorful quotes, his sometimes bullish refusal to back down to opposition and his slashing of the county debt load.

When he steps down from office tomorrow, he'll leave a legacy of being the strongest county executive to ever serve in Harford, and arguably one of the strongest in the Baltimore region during his two terms in office.

Beginning tomorrow, Freeman moves back to the private life -- his boat and practice as a physical therapist -- and away from the limelight he received and which some say he relished as county executive.

Freeman's reduction of the county debt is often cited by others in government as one of his most significant accomplishments. Between 1984 and 1989, he reduced the county's debt by 55 percent -- from $46 million in 1984 to $21 million in 1989.

County records show that in 1982, when Freeman first took office, Harford's debt equaled $275 per county resident. By 1989, that debt had been reduced to $140 per resident.

He accomplished debt reduction through a stoic policy of virtually no borrowing of money in the bond market, save for water and sewer improvement projects which would be paid off through user fees.

To many, Freeman is perhaps best known for a financial policy which involves paying for capital improvement projects with cash already in hand.

But Freeman, who will take office as a state senator for District 34 next month, says his pay-as-you go policy has been misunderstood.

"Everybody misunderstood pay-go; it was never a philosophy," said Freeman.

"When I came on the job, we had a high debt payment; it's like every month you have a $100 payment, the same as if your credit card was maxed out. We had no cash flow, which meant we had problems with borrowing.

"So I said 'Don't borrow, and after two or three years we'll have enough cash in the coffers to do business.' It was never because I was concerned about borrowing. Borrowing is a useful tool for a county. Pay-as-you-go was simply a way to do business."

Pay-as-you-go also has been one of the most controversial aspects of his administration.

Critics say the policy unnecessarily delayed important county construction projects, such as major improvements to the county's sewer and water service and new school buildings. Those delays will force County Executive-elect Eileen M. Rehrmann and the new County Council, who will be sworn in tomorrow at Harford Community College, to make some tough decisions, critics of the policy say.

Nevertheless, Freeman said he believes the pay-as-you-go policy has left the county in good shape to face the current economic downturn.

"I think you're going to see a government that does very well in hard times," said Freeman. "Look at Howard County with its nearly $18 million deficit."

With the economy slowing, Howard County faces a tough time because of its deficit, Freeman said. But the worst-case scenario for Harford is that "we'll be exactly where we told you we'd be," he said.

"For years people have made fun of my conservative revenue estimates.

But you're not going to see any multimillion dollar deficit. I pride myself in getting the county financially on board."

But Rehrmann, who has been studying the county's financial situation in preparation for taking office tomorrow, disagrees with Freeman. She says that, on the contrary, the county is facing financial problems.

"The cupboard's bare, financially speaking," said Rehrmann. "There's no surplus to fund pay-go. He's left us with no money for capital projects under pay-go, and yes, that's a problem."

Rehrmann also criticized Freeman for not taking steps to resolve the county's sewer and water problems. The expansion of the Sod Run sewage treatment station is one of the first capital projects the Rehrmann administration will face.

"Sewer and water are significant financial issues for a county, and it should have been under way," said Rehrmann.

She did praise Freeman for his efforts to put as much information as possible about the county into computers, including the new Geographic Information System.

"That's a very important accomplishment of the Freeman administration," Rehrmann said.

"But I think he would have been a little more effective if he'd worked better with the levels of government -- the council, the towns and the legislative delegation."

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