Easy come, easy go

October 23, 1992

The good news for Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann is that she just closed the books for the last fiscal year and the county ended up $13 million in the black. The bad news, for her, is that anyone else has to know about it.

Having a surplus is certainly preferable to running a deficit. And Harford's balance -- officials prefer to call it an "undesignated fund balance" because it sounds uglier -- is as good as gone already, because of $8.6 million in state cuts the county must absorb. The Rehrmann administration also believes it is prudent to maintain $7 million in savings, 5 percent of the budget, to preserve the county's bond rating so it can attract favorable interest rates when borrowing money.

The troublesome part for Ms. Rehrmann is that her employees haven't received cost-of-living raises for two years. News that Harford has a flow of cash won't make it easier to convince county unions that they'll have to sacrifice again for the sake of the government.

"Our teachers are burned up and burned out," says Jean Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association. This is not a poor county, [although] they like to talk poor."

The county council president, Jeffrey D. Wilson, isn't apt to make things easier on Ms. Rehrmann either. He stuck out his neck for the unions last winter, crowing that the county had enough money and could suffice with a smaller reserve. Last week's news will also help confirm for the governor and legislative leaders their belief that the suburbs can absorb budget blows better than can the state.

After her treasurer announced that the county's property tax revenues were already $3 million ahead of projections this fiscal year, Ms. Rehrmann questioned the accuracy of the estimate. She would come to county headquarters in sackcloth and fingerless gloves if it would help make the point that the county isn't in clover.

To her administration's credit, Harford's unplanned surplus was due to $6.5 million in savings from cuts during the year. Tax revenues actually came in $3.8 million less than anticipated. Ms. Rehrmann is also correct in stressing that the county is not out of the woods yet, and maybe more important, neither is the state.

Ms. Rehrmann's trick will be selling the severity of the situation -- and it is severe -- while interest groups hear surplus, discount the fact that the county has avoided furloughs and demand their share.

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