Harford: Catching Up is Hard to Do

April 05, 1991

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann thinks she can avoid a property tax increase and layoffs by keeping next year's $174.6 million spending request four percent lower than the current year's budget. "If they start cutting, that means lay-offs," she said of possible reductions by the county council.

Ms. Rehrmann's request may be a "bare-bones budget," but it is unlikely that the Harford County Council will rubber-stamp it. For one thing, she and Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson have been publicly arguing about fiscal matters ever since they took office last year. There is no reason to expect a truce now that Ms. Rehrmann has outlined her four-year spending priorities.

We fully expect the county council to engage in some grandstanding. But after that is done, council members ought to take a deep breath and join Ms. Rehrmann in a thorough examination of the root cause of Harford's current financial predicament. Unless the county can quickly diversify its economic base, it will be jumping from one financial crisis to another as its property-tax base proves incapable of supporting its service and infrastructure demands.

Providing affordable bedrooms for the rest of the metropolitan area is Harford County's main industry. It has been a spectacular enterprise which has changed much of the once-rural county. Yet the boom of the Eighties masked the fact that every newly built town house resulted in a revenue loss for the county government: The owner of a typical town house pays $900 a year in property taxes but sends one or two children to public schools at a cost of $3,500 per pupil. And that doesn't even account for the cost to the county of new roads and sewers to accommodate these new Harford residents.

One solution is an aggressive economic development program that will increase the county's industrial and commercial tax base. This will take time and will not be easy, yet it is an essential step to assure Harford's prosperity.

The current recession has served to remind Harford residents of the pitfalls of its explosive suburbanization of the past two decades. In that sense, Ms. Rehrmann's budget proposal and her long-range spending priorities merely attempt to catch up with service needs created during the go-go years. Such catch-up is hard to do when the county's revenues are sagging during a recession. That is just one more reason why the executive and the council should concentrate on broadening Harford's tax base.

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