County department chiefs were poring over their budgets last week, looking for ways to trim expenses without cutting services, after learning that Harford will probably lose another $5.4 million in state aid.
"My priority is to keep people working," said County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann. "And we'll be looking at other sources of revenuebefore raising the tax rate."
Rehrmann said all departments, including the Sheriff's Office andthe Board of Education, would have to trim their budgets to make up the shortfall.
"Everybody's kind of just looking at each other," said James Terrell, chief of emergency operations for the county. "I don't think anybody's budget is fat. I've honestly been looking at thenumbers, but I can tell you we're going to have some heavy decisionsto make."
Rehrmann did not anticipate Harford's additional loss of $5.4 million in state aid. Harford has already lost $6.4 million instate aid in the first round of cuts, aimed at erasing the state budget deficit brought on by sagging revenues and rising entitlement costs.
"We thought we'd have to face $2 million in cuts this time, orat tops, $3 million," said Rehrmann. "It's another thing to be told we'll have $5 million in cuts and that there will be another round ofcuts in February. Where we were bleeding before, we're hemorrhaging."
The General Assembly must approve the proposed cuts before they take effect.
To deal with the latest round of cuts, Rehrmann called an emergency meeting of county department chiefs Wednesday to ask all departments to cut their budgets by 2 percent and present ideas toraise revenue.
The county's operating budget is $140.9 million this year; the $11.4 million in total state aid cuts Harford faces represents about 8 percent of the operating budget.
The County Councilvoted two weeks ago to raise the county's property tax assessment cap to 10 percent, up from 6 percent. That move is expected to generateabout $731,000 in new revenue the first year it is in effect.
Agency directors, who each cut their budgets this year by 4 percent to save a total of about $8 million, said they will be hard pressed to make up for the loss in state money.
"I'm getting close to (cutting)people, and that's just what the administration wants to avoid. We want to keep people working," said William T. Baker Jr., director of public works. He said he is considering deferring some planned projects as a way to save money.
"Aaagh. Can you print that?" said Amey Epstein, director of the county's housing agency, when asked where shecould find another 2 percent to give up. "I don't have that much left, and we have rent subsidies that we've guaranteed."
Epstein's county budget totals about $300,000. Her agency also relies on money from the federal government, which so far has not been cut. She said she is planning to cut expenditures for supplies and printing, and she plans to ask agency inspectors to cut gas and travel expenses.
"I don't think anybody's saying, 'Oh, God, here it comes again.' I'm sure the county executive doesn't like asking for the budget cuts, but everybody's in the same position," said Epstein.
Several weeks ago,Larry Klimovitz, director of administration, asked county agency directors to begin drafting a plan for cutting 2 percent of their budgets.
The county Sheriff's Office and Board of Education were exempt that time, but after Tuesday's news, those agencies too will be expected to reduce expenses.
"There aren't any sacred cows at this point," said Rehrmann. "The problem is that our county is one of the growing counties, which means there are more people to provide services for."
Rehrmann said she and other county executives are urging Gov.William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly to alert them soon if future cuts are to come.
"We have to submit our budgets this spring to the county councils," she said.