County Disfavors Rehrmann's Surplus Idea Amid Debt

April 07, 1991|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff writer

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's 1991-1992 budget proposal is getting a lukewarm reception among County Council members.

Council members said they aren't happy the budget calls for holding $6.8 million as a surplus while borrowing millions on the bond market to buildschools and cap a landfill.

Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson said Rehrmann is "trying to do an end run on the county charter" with her proposal that the countyshould deliberately refrain from spending $6.8 million.

Wilson and other council members said they also are concerned about Rehrmann'sproposal for the county to borrow $13.1 million on the bond market in the 1991-1992 fiscal year.

"I fear Harford County will end up facing a large bond debt like Howard County," said Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C.

"I'm not saying we should not go to the bond market, just that if we do we should go cautiously. But you can only borrow so much and you can only tighten your belt for one or two years. I honestly don't believe we can go through another eight years like we didwithout a tax increase."

Rehrmann said she plans to use money from the sale of bonds to pay for:

* $4.5 million for county's share of construction costs for Fallston Middle School.

* $1.9 million for the county's share of the Route 543 elementary school's construction costs.

* $369,000 in planning costs for Belcamp elementary. (School planning costs are not covered or matched by the state.)

* $750,000 to match a state grant for the Higher Education and Applied Technology Center to be built near Aberdeen.

* $750,000 for renovations to the county office building at 18 Office St.

* $99,900 for aHarford Community College building.

* $4.2 million to cap and close Tollgate Landfill near Bel Air.

* $500,000 in planning costs for an elementary school gymnasium that would be shared by the county Parks and Recreation Department.

Rehrmann said earlier this year she would borrow no more than $14 million annually -- an amount she believes the county can withstand without incurring debt it will not be able to pay back.

Should the bond issues for the schools and landfill be approved by the council, it would be the first time in eight years the county has issued bonds for projects other than water and sewer improvements. Harford paid $4.69 million in principal and interest on its long-term bond debt this year; the county expects to pay $4.5 million on that debt in fiscal 1992, which ends June 30, 1992.

Philip J. Barker, D-District F, said he would refrain from commenting on the proposed budget or the bond issue proposal until he received more information in the council's budget work sessions, which began this week. But he did say he had met with county school Superintendent Ray R. Keech to discuss mutual concerns about the amount of money Rehrmann allotted to education in her proposed budget.

Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, praised Rehrmann for "doing an excellent job at trimming the budget down."

But Wagner said he is "concerned about the$6.8 million being held out."

Leaving $6.8 million of the budget untouched would ensure that the county will end the year with money leftover, sometimes called a positive fund balance or a surplus, Rehrmann said. If the county ends the year with about 5 percent of its budget unspent that would help Harford keep its strong Aa and A+ bond ratings, which ensure the county pays a low interest rate on the money it borrows on the bond market, she said.

But Wilson, and Council attorney H. Edward Andrews III, contend it would be a violation of theCounty Charter to carry a surplus throughout the fiscal year.

"There's a lack of credibility," said Wilson. "When she gives me a number she needs to give me hard numbers, not manipulative numbers."

Atissue is the interpretation of the county charter.

In Section 503a, the charter says the county budget should reflect "all receipts and disbursements from all sources, including all revenues, all expenditures, and the surplus or deficit in the general fund and all special funds of the county government."

Another section of the charter,515a, says the council is empowered to raise taxes required "so thatthe budget shall be balanced as to proposed income and expenditures."

Wilson says those charter provisions mean every dollar that comes in must be accounted for and at least assigned to a department or capital expenses even if not actually spent.

"We believe Mr. Wilsonis dead-in-the-water wrong," said Emory Plitt, the county attorney. "What I understand the council president to say is that if you've gotit, you've got to spend it. There's nothing in the budget that says if the county ends the year with a surplus you've got to spend it. I defy anybody to find it written in the charter."

Plitt contends Rehrmann's proposed budget is balanced, as required by the charter. "There were surpluses in previous years that were used with a great dealof regularity for capital projects, but many people seem to have forgotten about that," said Plitt. "If the county doesn't keep reserves and we don't sell bonds, how are we going to pay for improvements to the Sod Run sewage treatment plant and other projects?"

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