The expectation of a post-election windfall dissipated the day Eileen M. Rehrmann took office as Harford County executive. Instead of a predicted pot of gold, the administration of Habern W. Freeman Jr. left the cupboard bare. Thus, one of Mrs. Rehrmann's first acts was to impose a 30-day freeze on hiring and purchases and delay plans for a $16-million county office building. Otherwise, the county would be in the red.
What happened? How could a county that last fiscal year produced an $18 million surplus find itself in a hole a year later?
Welcome to the recession.
Most of the '80s were unprecedented go-go times in Harford. The home-building and land development industries were working overtime, churning out houses for families moving into the semi-rural county. During the decade, Harford's population zoomed from 145,930 to 175,000.
The county entered this period of growth in a shaky economic state. Yet as the real estate boom took off in 1984, Harford suddenly found itself swimming in money. Between 1984 and this year, the county's budget more than doubled -- from $69.6 million to $149.2 million. The more the budgets grew, the bigger the annual surpluses seemed to get. Indeed, budget surpluses in that six-year period totaled nearly $84 million.
This was the basis for Mr. Freeman's ability during his two terms to finance infrastructure expansion without borrowing money. All that may have changed. "I think the days of large surpluses are over because the boom economy is over," says County Treasurer James M. Jewell. From now on, Harford will have to borrow if it wants to build.
In biting the bullet, Mrs. Rehrmann acted to save the county's double-A credit rating, which reduces the amount of interest it would pay on its bonds. Her decisiveness is commendable. Yet this is only the start of what promises to be a difficult process of balancing not only the current year's budget but developing one for next April.
This fall, when Mr. Freeman started preparing next year's budget, he told county departments to stick to current spending levels without additional personnel. While this may give her a decent foundation, Mrs. Rehrmann will have to do a lot of juggling to free up money for her own priorities. Her first budget is likely to teach her a lesson about the limits of a county executive's power.