Why Does Council Budget Mushroom?

COMMENT

October 30, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Regardless of who wins in next month's Harford County Council elections, there's going to be pressure on the victors to take a closer look at that deliberative body's cost and manner of conducting public business.

The budget for the seven-member council has soared nearly 50 percent in four short years, to more than $1.1 million. That's still less than 1 percent of the total operating budget of $175 million. The overall county budget has increased about 22 percent from 1990 to 1994.

But it's the rate of increase that has sparked discussion of the council's direction toward an ever-increasing bureaucracy and the growing assumption that council membership is a full-time job.

The council has nearly 20 employees, including part-timers, to carry out a variety of functions. These include sitting as zoning appeals and health boards, auditing county services and overseeing the public access cable channel(Harford Cable Network) in addition to regular council meetings and hearings on various issues and legislation.

In the first year of charter government, back in 1972, the same size council had one authorized employee, a secretary who was director of the legislative department.

Growth of the council staff over time is not unexpected, considering that the population of Harford County has doubled to more than 200,000 people since the early 1970s.

The growth of the council budget and staff is also tied to the proliferation of legislative concerns. Council hearings have grown length, the special meetings and continued (multi-day) meetings of the council have expanded. That means more staff time, more paper and ink and more utilities costs, at the least.

Some of the higher spending has gone for computerization of council functions, which should presumably reduce expenses or hold down increases in the future. But that promise of computer efficiency too often fails to be fulfilled in any office.

It's the significant increase in the budget over the past four years, under a council dominated by political newcomers who were propelled into office by voters in a "sweep the rascals out" mood, that has raised some eyebrows at this quadrennial time for stock-taking.

In fact, we would expect these elected public servants to be blowing the whistle on any other agency whose budget had mushroomed in similar fashion in this short period. Instead, we hear righteous explanations for the larger budget and expressions of concern that further increases will be needed to support the mounting work of the council.

If it's a matter of upgrading the public cable channel, and truly making it of value to Harford citizens, the added funds may be well spent. If the council needs money to hire lawyers to defend itself in court, that's another contingency that can be justified. But burgeoning routine expenses and requests for more council staff are things that can be controlled.

The budget issue hasn't arisen directly as a campaign issue. Rather, some candidates have questioned the lax rules and liberal use of expense reimbursements by certain incumbents. Even some incumbents are quietly muttering about the permissive attitude of fellow members toward the expense account.

The discussion suggests the need for a change in the guidelines, or the clear statement of such, in determining valid expenses.

In the previous council term, for example, there were clear-cut guidelines on travel expenses, noted councilwoman Joanne Parrott, now the Republican candidate for council president. Legislators who planned business trips out of state would announce their intention at the public council meeting beforehand. Now, she says, the first time colleagues learn about such trips is when the expense statements are submitted.

That's simple procedure that should be required of all council members, to enhance the institutional integrity of the body.

In addition, there is a quarrel over what should be reimbursed and what should not: Are car phones a modern business necessity or a luxury? Are frequent mass mailings important for public communication or are they a personal affectation?

The simple solution would be to give each council member a fixed expense allotment, to be used as she or he sees fit. The expense should be reasonably justified, but wouldn't require individual announcement and approval by the body.

Among incumbents, Barry Glassman and Mrs. Parrott said they favored a set yearly allowance for each council member. There was little enthusiasm for the idea from others. We hope the next council will look more favorably on this proposal.

We also hope that the next council will remember that the elected office is a part-time position. Council member pay has jumped 150 percent over the past decade. While the current council did not raise that salary, in part shamed by public criticism, the issue is certain to arise in 1995-1998.

Let the new council remember what their constituents have experienced over the past decade before they decide to jack up the perks and vote for a hefty pay increase.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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