Harford County faces financial headaches

Strapped for funds: Slower growth could mean tax hikes to pay for school, police services.

February 26, 2000

GOV. Parris N. Glendening may be awash in a $1 billion surplus, but many Maryland counties aren't enjoying the same prosperity.

Take Harford County, a popular bedroom community that finds itself in a tough financial bind.

Harford's service economy lacks the balanced tax base it needs. Each townhouse sold in Harford drains county resources because it doesn't even provide enough tax money to pay local school costs.

Yet the county continues to grow -- albeit at a slower pace -- requiring more services, more policing and more education aid.

Now County Executive James M. Harkins finds himself with a huge headache. Local tax revenues -- especially property taxes -- are falling behind county expenses. Cutting services won't do in a community where homeowners expect government to provide them with basic amenities.

So Mr. Harkins, a conservative Republican, unhappily is talking about higher taxes, most likely the local income tax. He faces a cumulative, three-year deficit of $29 million. Without more revenue, there won't be any pay raises for county sheriffs or teachers. That could pose profound implications for Harford's future.

Right now, the county has the lowest-paid police force in the Baltimore region. That makes it hard to hire new sheriffs, who patrol the county. Making matters worse, one-fifth of the force is expected to retire within two years.

The situation with educators is bleak, too. Harford ranks low among Maryland districts in teacher salaries. Without higher pay, new computers and more textbooks, teachers won't sign up.

Harford County is no longer a sleepy, rural haven along Interstate 95 north of Baltimore. It is emerging as a crowded suburban community where demands for services are high among its informed and concerned residents.

But citizens also have to recognize that services aren't cheap to deliver. If Harford countians want better policing and teaching, taxes may have to be raised -- even in the best of times.

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