Harford weathers downturn But critics say Rehrmann budget needs close check

April 04, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

In neighboring Baltimore County, more than 300 employees got pink slips earlier this year as the county struggled to stay in the black. Last year, Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties furloughed workers. Throughout the region, a persistent recession has forced local governments to scale back spending and services.

By comparison, Harford County has weathered the economic downturn remarkably well.

Evidence of just how well came last week when County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann proposed a fiscal 1994 operating budget that would give 5,000 employees 3 percent across-the-board and merit raises, increase spending nearly 10 percent and maintain an $8.1 million surplus.

To hear Mrs. Rehrmann tell it, the $162.8 million spending plan demonstrates her administration's ability to manage money.

"The budget is a reflection that Harford is in sound fiscal shape," she said. "The economy is better than it has been, and the budget reflects that, but the budget also reflects the need for caution.

"My first priority, from the beginning, has been to maintain services and not raise taxes. I promised workers there would be no furloughs or layoffs and that they would get a cost-of-living raise as soon as the revenue was available."

The County Council, which received Mrs. Rehrmann's budget Thursday, will spend the next two months sifting through it. Each the county's 27 departments will have to justify its budget before the seven members of the council.

Jeffrey D. Wilson, council president, has promised to scrutinize the budget because he believes Mrs. Rehrmann may begin spending too freely as the economy improves.

"Administrations don't get into trouble during thin years. They get in trouble when they think they are rolling in clover and start spending," Mr. Wilson said.

"Mrs. Rehrmann has been saving money from her first two years . . . and now she'll start spending that money. It's a publicly financed campaign, all very legal and aboveboard. People will be coming to her with a wish list, and she'll make their wish come true because she's hoping for their support in the 1994 election."

But the executive is quick to dismiss that claim.

She said she proceeded cautiously in putting together the budget, partly because Harford's unemployment rate is high, about 8.7 percent. That's one reason the county expects revenues from personal income taxes to climb by only about 3.5 percent to around $57 million.

Also, she said assessments on existing homes have been inching up slowly because housing prices remain flat. The county expects sale prices of existing homes to rise by only about 1.7 percent this year.

Mr. Wilson charged that Mrs. Rehrmann has used the soft econo my as an excuse to underestimate revenues and hoard money. For example, he said, the county has deliberately underestimated the amount of property taxes it would collect.

But Mrs. Rehrmann and other administration officials counter that they estimated revenues conservatively not to squirrel away money but to ensure the county's continued financial health.

This fiscal year, the county had predicted property taxes would increase by 5 percent. Instead, the county expects to collect about $82.6 million, or 10 percent more than last year, said Jim Jewell, county treasurer. Mr. Jewell said that the low estimate was not deliberate.

"We must be conservative," he said. "What happens if we go with a higher revenue estimate and the money never materializes?"

Mrs. Rehrmann said she has raised fees and license costs only to make services self-supporting. She has proposed raising water and sewer fees by 5 percent next year to make that operation self-sufficient, she said. That would be the third increase in a row for a total increase of about 50 percent since 1991. Before that, she said, those fees had not increased since 1981.

Harford also is continuing to hold down spending and hiring, she said. Under her budget, the county would hire an additional 27 people this year, but would cut 13 other jobs.

The hires would include seven correctional guards to handle an increasing jail population and six positions for the Abingdon water treatment plant, expected to open in fiscal 1994.

Councilman Robert S. Wagner, a District E Republican, said he'll study the budget carefully to ensure that the county can afford the promised raises. "There may be people who are very deserving of those increases, but the raises are an unfair burden to those citizens who have lost their jobs or have been threatened with layoffs," he said.

Mr. Wagner also worried that while Harford may have enough cash to give the salary increases this year, the county will be unable to sustain the higher salaries later.

But Councilman Philip J. Barker, a District F Democrat, disagreed. "The county can afford the raises, and they are

absolutely necessary. We can't keep balancing the budget on the backs of county employees."

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