Rehrmann: Results, but at what cost? Accomplishments are admired, methods criticized

January 03, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

Even critics agree Eileen M. Rehrmann gets the job done:

Harford County is operating in the black with a surplus, while other counties, awash in red ink, have resorted to layoffs, furloughs and deep budget cuts.

Some of the county executive's most vocal opponents will tell you she's done a remarkable job adding roads, schools, water and sewer service and more to catch up with the demands created by the population explosion of the early 1980s.

And these days, her name is even being tossed about as a possible candidate for governor or lieutenant governor.

The problem, critics contend, is how she gets the job done.

Her ironfisted management style, they say, has created low morale among employees, strained relations with the County Council and led some to label her a vindictive opportunist who seeks the limelight.

"It's a Nixon-like administration with lists of enemies," said Jeffrey D. Wilson, the council president.

"I don't know if the list is written down, but there are certainly people in public life and private enterprise who are clearly in favor or disfavor," he said. "It's the most vindictive administration I've seen in 20 years of charter government."

That charge left the executive laughing.

"I thought the council president was talking about himself," she said, denying such "lists" of enemies exist.

"I'm not the one who does personal character assassinations on Tuesday nights," she said of verbal exchanges between Mr. Wilson and nominees to various county boards. Some nominees have withdrawn their names from consideration after such skirmishes.

"I came to office in the most difficult and challenging times in Harford County, the state and the nation, and I've gotten through the tough times by effective management," Mrs. Rehrmann said.

"If a man had done what I've done, he would be viewed as a tough manager. I expect people to see me that way, too."

Or, as George Harrison, her spokesman, put it:

"You can't put a spoon in the soup and not mix things up. Maybe you don't like the way she operates, but the bottom line is: What are the results?"

Weathering economic storms

Harford County closed the fiscal year on July 30, 1992, with a $13.7 million surplus, leaving it in better shape than most other counties to withstand expected state budget cuts this year.

Mrs. Rehrmann is proud of that record -- and of how she has pared her budget.

"We've been able to take major cuts by the state without cutting services, having furloughs or layoffs and without raising the income tax," she said.

Mr. Wilson, however, has accused Mrs. Rehrmann of inventing a financial crisis.

"There's about $14 million in cash sitting in the bank in unappropriated [unspent] overages," Mr. Wilson said. "Yet she goes around emptying her pocketbook and showing nothing in it."

Some county employees received so-called step, or merit, pay raises this year, with urging from the council. But all county and school employees have gone without across-the-board raises for three years.

Mrs. Rehrmann has tried to shore up the county's finances by deliberately creating a surplus from savings at the beginning of each budget year.

But she also has relied on that firm financial footing to preserve Harford's bond rating, ensuring low interest payments when the county borrowed money on the bond market to pay for construction projects.

In the current fiscal year alone, the county has borrowed more than $45 million on the bond market, with the council's blessing, to pay for new schools, an expanded wastewater treatment plant and other projects.

Since Mrs. Rehrmann took office in December 1990, the county has borrowed $17.9 million for projects including school construction; $58.5 million for water and sewer expansion; $1.8 million for bridge improvements; and $4.2 million for trash disposal.

"The indebtedness bothers me, but when you look at it, you can't find a blooming thing you can cut," said Councilman Robert S. Wagner, R-District E. Mrs. Rehrmann's fiscal policy even earned respect from Mr. Wilson, who admits that "to say we are not very compatible is an understatement."

"There are points of her fiscal policy I disagree with, but I think that we still have black ink is very much a plus. Mrs. Rehrmann and Larry Klimovitz [director of administration] are to be congratulated," Mr. Wilson said.

"The items on Mrs. Rehrmann's agenda have been basically correct: revising the personnel code, the new water and sewer plans, the solid waste management plan, the rural plan and improving the infrastructure."

Stark contrast to Freeman

Habern Freeman, Mrs. Rehrmann's predecessor, said the new debt doesn't bother him, though he is known for his eight-year policy of pay-as-you-go -- paying cash for brick-and-mortar projects.

Some of Mr. Freeman's critics assert that his administration failed to build schools, roads, sewer lines and more fast enough to keep up with the population boom, forcing Mrs. Rehrmann to (( play catch-up.

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