Principles or Principals for Harford?

June 03, 1993

The dispute between Harford County's council and executive over $250,000 for the school system budget is a battle over power, not over money or education. It's an unfortunate reprise of the petty squabbling that has impaired executive-council relations in Harford for over two years.

Eileen Rehrmann was wrong to veto the council's action, relying on a narrow charter interpretation that does not strengthen the budget-making process and antagonizes the lawmakers.

We hope the council will override that veto next week. If the council is to play a meaningful role in the budget review, it should sustain its position to trim the solid-waste subsidy and the detention center funding, and add money to the school budget.

The fight is over comparatively small change in the $163 million budget, but Mrs. Rehrmann claims the council illegally revised revenue estimates, rather than cutting a department allocation (which it may do) and adding to the education budget (which it may also do.)

The distinction between revenue projection and budget allocation may be blurred in this case, leading to the close 4-3 council vote on the matter. It may end up in court, with taxpayers footing the bill. But this is the kind of budget adjustment that the County Council should be permitted to make, without shaking the charter's foundation.

Mrs. Rehrmann has annoyed the council by setting aside 5 percent of each annual budget to bolster county bond ratings. That may be prudent financial management, but it also provides an untouchable cushion of money. Her revenue projections have also been noticeably underestimated, creating another surplus for her use at year's end.

Trimming the solid-waste subsidy budget in the light of this history does not appear to violate the charter. There is legitimate argument for upgrading 11 part-time assistant school principals to full-time status. Remember, Mrs. Rehrmann quickly found $2.3 million extra for the school budget, in response to public demands. This debate isn't about education, but about the on-going issue of control.

The distinction between a revenue shortfall and a budget allocation may arise again; next time, the council may overstep its charter authority. But this time, Mrs. Rehrmann has erred in not respecting the council's rightful decision.

Her action blocks the hiring of more teachers. It may also imperil the future of her agenda with a rebuked council, including the takeover of sheriff's office duties and adequate-facilities measures.

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