As Public Works defends $39 million budget, Wilson seeks spending oversight

April 17, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County Public Works officials defended their 1995 budget requests to the County Council Thursday, as council President Jeffrey D. Wilson reiterated a request for the county to develop a cost-accounting system so that it can more closely monitor departmental spending.

At $38.9 million, the proposed Department of Public Works (DPW) operating budget is second in size only to that of the Department of Education, which has been allotted $96.4 million.

The DPW budget includes $14.7 million for highways, $14 million for the water and sewer division, and $9.1 million for the solid waste division. About $1 million is requested for storm water management, sediment control and pest control.

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann released her proposed $237.3 million budget package April 1. If approved by the council by May 31, it becomes effective July 1.

R. Wayne Keeler, deputy director for engineering and transportation, detailed the major increases in expenditures for the highways division, including a 3 percent across-the-board raise Mrs. Rehrmann has allotted for all county employees.

The department also has requested $175,000 to replace failing automobiles and pickup trucks used by highway inspectors and supervisors, $40,000 for a drill rig, $76,000 for new laborer positions, and nearly $100,000 for computer software and hardware.

"We have a crying need to network our districts," Mr. Keeler said in requesting updated computers for engineering. "There has to be more sophisticated transfer of electronic data."

Mr. Wilson questioned whether the department needs a fleet of 41 automobiles.

"Actually, we are short of cars," said Mr. Keeler, noting that temporary employees who conduct inspections use their own cars and are reimbursed for mileage.

He said that all eight cars scheduled for replacement have more than 100,000 miles on them and that "it costs a considerable amount to keep them up."

A discussion of the cost-effectiveness of buying a $40,000 drill rig or bidding out drill work gave Mr. Wilson the opportunity to repeat a request for closer monitoring of expenditures, which he has made at past budget hearings.

"We should develop a system of cost accounting so we know what we're taking in and how it's being used," he said.

The county currently groups several functions of a department into a single account, such as engineering and inspections in the highway division.

County Treasurer James M. Jewell later agreed that a cost-accounting system, which would break down the costs of individual operations within a department or division electronically, would help determine true costs of various services.

Mr. Jewell said he would ask the county executive to include funding for cost-accounting computer software in the treasurer's budget in fiscal 1996.

The county spent $1.3 million on snow removal this winter, but DPW is requesting only $337,000 for snow removal in fiscal 1995, about the same amount as in this year's budget.

Administration Director Larry W. Klimovitz said Harford, like many other Maryland counties, has applied for a federal FEMA grant to cover some of the excess costs of snow removal.

He said Harford may have to delay some capital projects in its current budget if the grant money isn't approved.

The 1.3 percent increase in the water and sewer operating budget is modest, said Jerald Wheeler, deputy director for water and sewer.

Much of that is for the start-up and operation of the Abingdon Water Treatment Plant, which will open in June, he said. The plant will enable the county to increase the number of customers in the system by 5 percent, to about 27,500, and will require hiring five employees.

The water and sewer budget also includes $60,000 for a "cost of services" study intended to "provide a framework for future deliberations on rate adjustments," according to the department's budget statement.

Earlier this month, the County Council rejected an increase in water and sewer rates for the second time in 10 months and told its auditor to conduct a performance audit on the water and sewer division.

The largest portion of the solid waste division's budget increase, $1.75 million, is designated for construction of two new cells at the Scarboro landfill, due to be completed in 1996. Another $1.59 million will cover the county's increased cost of burning trash at the privately owned waste-to-energy facility in Magnolia.

The $2.14 million request for operating the Office of Recycling reflects an 11 percent increase over last year. Frank Henderson, deputy director for environmental affairs, said the $218,000 increase is needed to cover the cost of processing and transporting recyclables. He said the department projects a 19 percent increase in tonnage of recyclable material in fiscal 1995.

Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott, a District B Republican, noted the high projections, saying, "I think you should make an attempt to reduce the residue returned as well."

She said that 18 percent of the recycled trash in the county is rejected by recyclers as unsuitable.

"We need to re-educate people about what can and cannot be accepted," she said. "I would like to see that rejection rate reduced to 13 to 15 percent."

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