Harford budget plan includes tax increase

Harkins wants more spent on education, police

March 31, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Noting the prospect of future budget deficits and a need to beef up salaries for teachers and police, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins is to propose today a $258 million spending plan that comes with a tax increase for county residents.

Harkins' operating budget includes a plan to increase the county's piggyback tax rate from 50 percent to 60 percent -- which would cost an unmarried taxpayer with a gross income of $25,000 about $90 more a year.

"It's not something I want to be doing," said Harkins, a first-term Republican. He added: "It's the No. 1 priority of our citizens to have good schools and safe streets. If we raise taxes, these revenues will be used solely for public education and public safety."

Officials said the tax increase, the county's first in at least 17 years, could add as much as $15 million to the budget. Of that, about $8 million would go to pay increases for teachers.

Harkins said the budget would fund the 5 percent raises that teachers and other school professionals agreed to in negotiations with the county school board. Also, they could be eligible for an additional 1 percent increase, which would be paid by the state.

The news was welcomed by Paul Schatz, president of the Harford County Education Association, the union that represents county teachers.

"We will continue to be vigilant to see that the county council passes the tax increase," he said.

County officials said they need to make salaries for teachers and sheriff's deputies competitive with those in other counties.

County Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican who represents northern Harford County, said he is "philosophically opposed to raising taxes -- simple as that." But he added, "I do think there's a consensus among the council members to take a serious look at tax increases."

Councilwoman Cecelia M. Stepp, who represents Havre de Grace, said, "As a good Republican, am I looking forward to raising taxes? Heck, no." Still, she said, "I don't see any other way at this point."

Harkins floated the possibility of tax increases last month.

Without additional revenue, the county forecasts a budget deficit of nearly $7 million by next year. Although Harford had budget surpluses of at least $10 million as recently as five years ago, costs for the government in the fast-growing county have been rising 7.8 percent a year, while revenues have risen more slowly, at about 4.4 percent annually.

Although the state government, Baltimore County and other suburban governments have reported large budget surpluses, Harford and other counties that have increasingly become "bedroom communities" have struggled to pay for schools and police and fire protection.

There are no plans to increase the property tax rate of $2.73 per $100 of assessed value. Harford officials said they didn't think a property tax increase would raise enough money because real estate values are depressed in large areas of the county.

The administration also is proposing an increase from 1 percent to 6 percent in the county's amusement tax, and an increase in fees for services such as building inspections. Harkins said the county saved about $1.5 million by refinancing bond obligations last year, and is not hiring replacements for workers who retire.

The budget would increase spending by 4.3 percent at the sheriff's office, Harford's principal law enforcement agency.

The proposal also includes $952,000 for a plan to adjust deputies' salary scales to make them more competitive with those of other police agencies.

The County Council has until June 1 to pass a budget.

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