Vetoes and vexation in Harford

June 09, 1993

The battle of wills over Harford County's fiscal 1994 budge has been decided, on a hair-splitting technicality that reflects the strained relations between the council and the county executive.

Wielding a line-item veto, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann berated the County Council for passing an illegal budget, predicting chaos in the budget process if the legislative body prevailed. Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson accused her of showing contempt for the council, treating the members like rowdy schoolchildren in need of discipline. Monday, the council failed by one vote to override the veto.

What the council did was shift $200,000 from the solid-waste budget to the education budget, to upgrade 11 part-time assistant elementary school principals to full-time status. But it did so by claiming Mrs. Rehrmann had underestimated revenues from landfill tipping fees; the council can't tamper with revenue estimates, under the charter.

What Mrs. Rehrmann vetoed, despite the battle-cry rhetoric, was merely the council's refusal to remove its revision of the projected landfill revenues from the budget document. She accepted the $200,000 transfer to the schools budget. (The county executive did veto another $50,000 transfer from the detention center expansion project for the school principals, but that was not at issue.)

Both sides could have acted more temperately in the matter. The council could have decided that the executive had underestimated solid-waste revenues, but simply made the appropriation transfer to education, as it is legally entitled to do. The executive could have pointed out the legal technicality with high-level objections, while promising to abide by the council's decision to transfer funds.

In the end, the school system gets the principal promotions (and, thus, more classroom teachers) and the county landfill will remain open.

The budget process has been strained by Mrs. Rehrmann's insistence on setting aside 5 percent of the total to shore up

county bond ratings with lenders, providing a cash reserve for her year-end use that the council cannot transfer.

The council should be able to look at the entire budget, and to make decisions on cuts as well as on transfers to education. But it should respect the charter's distinction between revenue projections and appropriations, at least in the legal documents it passes. In public discussion, that distinction can become blurred. But both sides can approach the process with more goodwill and less belligerence.

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