Harford's year of living frugally

April 03, 1992

For Harford countians, the highlight in the $189 million budget unveiled this week by county officials is that there is no highlight. For the coming fiscal year, the success of city and county governments will be measured mostly by how they manage to cope with hold-the-line budgets.

Harford was the first metropolitan-area county to unveil its fiscal year 1993 blueprint, but the bottom line is likely to be repeated when other suburban counties unveil their budgets soon: No pay raises for workers. Flat budget growth, if any. Fee increases instead of higher property tax rates to raise revenue. Politicians tend to regard the property tax levy as bank robbers do money bags with exploding dye packs; all in all, it's easier to get the cash elsewhere.

Harford budgeteers consider themselves successful for what they haven't done: Theirs is the only Central Maryland jurisdiction not to furlough workers, despite mid-year losses in state aid. Government workers in several other counties have been furloughed four or five days without pay. Prince George's workers, in fact, are taking 10 furlough days. That amounts to a 3.4 percent pay cut, although it has felt like double that since it had to be absorbed in six months.

Harford credits its relative financial stability to the fact that County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann froze spending within days of being inaugurated in December 1990. Soon thereafter, she set up a "freeze committee" to review any spending request greater than $300. Wags dubbed it "the glacier committee." That action, Harford officials contend, gave the county a six-month jump before the recession storm hit. Other counties, most notably Anne Arundel, took early action, too.

Jurisdictions that relied heavily on the real estate market and on the incomes of white-collar workers are hurting the most. But many county budget directors blame their colleagues at the state level for misreading the recessionary clouds and making unprecedented cuts in local aid.

It wasn't long ago that Maryland's largest counties, taking a cue from the state and federal governments, designed their budgets with yearly political themes in mind. They were edifices of paper and ink. There was the Year of the Bay. Or the Year of Education. Or the Year of Recreation. Like soap powder, each one was "new" and "improved." Now, government officials have been forced to get back to basics and approach budgets in the same way as doordinary citizens -- as spending limits.

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