'No-fat' budget for Harford

April 08, 1994

County Executive Eileen Rehrmann, the Jenny Craig of Harford County government, has whipped up an election-year operating budget of $175 million that she claims is "no-fat" and all good for you.

Never mind the critics who note that this year's confection is 9 percent higher than last year's (three times the rate of inflation) and includes a calorific unallocated "fund balance" of $8.5 million as dessert at the end of the 1993-94 fiscal year.

The $2.73 property tax rate will not budge, the piggyback local income tax won't rise, and county fees will remain unchanged. This "people services budget" is the result, Mrs. Rehrmann asserts, of a "disciplined approach to budget management and conservative fiscal policies."

Her proposed spending plan will add 21 new positions for law enforcement, from new road patrol deputies to detention center guards, and 85 additional teachers, more than enough to maintain present average class size.

The library system will see budget increases to restore some cutbacks in operating hours that were imposed last year, and designs for a much-needed expansion of the Bel Air branch library will begin.

Firefighters, senior citizens and disabled citizens will get more money. Teachers and county employees are slated for a 3 percent wage increase.

There's even room for a new planetarium at Edgewood High School, a concession to the request of the politically active county PTA council.

Certainly Mrs. Rehrmann's administration has been adept at conservative financial management, while coping with multi-million-dollar cuts in state aid. Agencies have been forced to hold down their budgets to meet her spending caps -- and to retain that annual 5 percent reserve as a cushion and as an inducement for lenders to lower their interest rates for Harford. Meanwhile, surpluses have exceeded $30 million in the last two budgets.

She's significantly increased county borrowing to spread the tax burden into future decades. Property and income tax rates are stable, but the county has imposed trash-disposal charges and a real estate transfer tax, while increasing all manner of county service fees during the Rehrmann tenure.

All of which lends credence to the charge that the Democrat has been stocking up the pantry for three years to prepare for her re-election-year banquet. But, for the most part, the 1994-95 budget allocates money to proper needs and keeps Harford in the black. The Republican-majority County Council will have difficulty finding much fault.

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