Best-managed county in Maryland? Other suburbs struggle more to meet budget, supply infrastructure.

April 27, 1996

IS HARFORD the best-managed county in Maryland? It doesn't have the highest bond ratings. It doesn't seek to be full-service, with private trash haulers and an all-volunteer fire brigade. But when it comes to managing money, Harford stands alone.

While other governments in the region are forced to tell their employees to forgo pay increases again, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann has proposed a 2-percent raise as part of a $261 million budget that raises spending a big 9.4 percent without a tax hike.

Harford's debt load isn't nearly as onerous as its neighbors', thanks to the pay-as-you-go orthodoxy preached by its past two county executives. Its $219 of debt per person is by far the lowest in the region.

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick singled Harford out as an example of a jurisdiction that spends wisely on education; it typically ranks low in expenditures, but high in test scores. Not content to rest on laurels, Ms. Rehrmann wants to create a $500,000 fund to reward schools that show marked improvement or high education achievement.

Such innovation and foresight -- and some good fortune -- have helped solidify the county's standing. Before the housing boom of the late 1980s, Harford began marshaling infrastructure for a "development envelope" to contain sprawl. Low land costs and a location along Interstate 95 have made the county attractive to corporations seeking warehouse space. Also, while military installations are being closed elsewhere, Aberdeen Proving Ground continues to expand its mission. It remains an employment anchor for the county, as it has been much of this century. Last fall's folding of the Joppa headquarters of clothier Merry-Go-Round barely dented the local economy.

While many of these factors aren't transferable elsewhere, Harford's conservative brand of progressive thinking is. When other counties fattened payrolls in the 1980s, the previous executive, Habern W. Freeman, continued to pinch pennies. And the Rehrmann administration was among the first to brace itself before the recession hit in the '90s. All along, Harford County continued to build schools, expand water and sewer capacity and improve higher education, understanding that prudence and preparedness are not one and the same.

Pub Date: 4/27/96

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