Harford chief proposes 13% budget growth

Harkins focusing on quality-of-life issues

no tax increase planned

April 04, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Following an austere strategy, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins has proposed a $378 million budget for fiscal year 2002 -- a 13 percent increase over this year with no tax increase.

Harkins said yesterday he chose to focus spending on quality-of-life issues such as education, public safety, libraries, and parks and recreation.

The county faces difficult choices in allocating the money. While attempting to stay with pocketbook issues this year, officials also are faced with refurbishing four aging high schools and combating the county's heroin problem.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section about Harford County's fiscal year 2002 budget should have said that the county will continue to support the Susquehanna and Whiteford volunteer fire stations with general and operating funds as in the past.

"There are no tax increases or layoffs, and we feel strongly the county can continue to attract new residents and retain those already here with one of the strongest public school systems in Maryland and safe communities," Harkins, a Republican, said yesterday.

Last year, Harkins said the county faced a critical budget shortfall brought on by residential growth that was not matched by business development. As a result, the county raised its local income tax rate from 2.55 percent to 3.06 percent, a step that raised more than $9 million in additional funding that was dedicated to the 2002 budget.

The county has shown steady growth; the population has increased by 20 percent during the past decade, according to 2000 census figures. Harford is home to 226,565 residents, according to the county's economic development office.

Because of new accounting rules, money that was kept in separate categories, such as trust funds, pensions and investments, will be included in the general fund budget in the coming year, adding $13 million to the spending plan. Otherwise, the proposed increase in spending would have been 9 percent, officials said.

The budget is before the County Council, which will conduct hearings. The council must approve a budget and tax rate by May 31.

"At first glance, it's one of the better budgets I've seen, but there are some areas in the operating budget that could use some belt tightening, like the new communications system the executive has proposed," said Councilman Lance C. Miller, who represents Level, Darlington, Jarrettsville and a major portion of north Harford.

Miller was referring to a $9 million system that would put emergency and law enforcement personnel from the county's three municipalities and county and state agencies on one radio frequency.

"Could more go to education?" Miller said yesterday. "We'll find out in our hearings."

The seven-member council can cut from the budget. The members can add funds only to the education department.

To save $1.5 million in health care costs, Harkins said, the county created a consortium of employees from education, libraries, county government and Harford Community College to purchase insurance benefits.

He said the budget avoids layoffs by cutting 25 vacant positions and switching to private vendors for such jobs as topographical mapping and flagmen at road construction sites. All county employees would receive a 3 percent cost-of-living increase and be upgraded one pay step.

Among the major spending initiatives in the budget are:

$245 million for the Department of Education, including a $7.4 million wage package for current teachers and staff that provides an additional 1 percent cost-of-living increase for teachers. Also, $480,000 for 12 new teachers and $15 million for additions at Aberdeen High School, Abingdon and Church Creek elementary schools and the purchase of portable classrooms.

$33.2 million for the sheriff's office, a 14 percent increase over this year, including $1 million to pay for salary adjustments to retain younger deputies. Also, $1.1 million for 11 new deputies and clerks and a small incentive to attract new recruits. The agency wants to buy 27 police vehicles for $600,000 and 15 heart defibrillators at a cost of $51,000.

The department also wants $741,000 for construction and upgrades to the firing range and northern precinct.

$20 million for Emergency Services, which would fund five new dispatchers, pay raises, a new hazardous-materials vehicle and a new communications system. It also would enable the department to take over the Susquehanna Hose Substation and the Whiteford Main Station.

$21 million to fund technology updates and programs to fight heroin addiction and drug trafficking. Harkins also is seeking $10 million for emergency appropriations and nearly $1 million for Aberdeen's new minor league baseball stadium.

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