Harkins, Gilbert face off to lead Harford

Republican incumbent seeking his 2nd term

October 13, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins sees quality-of-life issues at the forefront of voters' minds. And he says he can point out ways he has addressed those issues since taking office four years ago.

The percentage of the county budget that goes to education and public safety has increased; the troubled Edgewood area is turning around; and a tax increase he instituted has helped to hire teachers and law-enforcement officers, he says. Also, the county has a surplus that has helped it earn improved bond ratings and reduce debt service.

"The county is certainly better than I found it," Harkins said.

But formidable challenges loom. County residents are angry that more isn't being done to curb growth and improve infrastructure; some schools in the central county are hundreds of students over capacity; and developers are keen to see the "development envelope" along Routes 40 and 24 expanded.

When the 48-year-old former sheriff's deputy anticipates a second term, he says these issues will remain central to his work. But the route he would choose to guide the county differs sharply from those proposed by his opponent, Paul Gilbert - and other candidates running for County Council and the General Assembly.

During a season in which impact fees - added to the cost of new homes to help pay for infrastructure to accommodate growth - are the talk of the county, Harkins flatly said he opposes them. He takes to task candidates who portray the fees as a cure-all for the county's problems.

"It rolls off the tongue," he said, and makes "tasty sound-bites. But we need to be up-front with people."

He points out that the fees can be used only in areas affected by new homes. And they can't be used to fund operating costs, such as paying teachers.

He said he is not advocating taxes linked to new homes for one simple reason: "We're limiting development and growth."

Although the county has approved nearly 7,000 building permits in the past four years, Harkins said those permits are for projects approved by past administrations. In the past four years, the county has approved no new lots for development, said Joseph Kocy, planning director.

Harkins said the area around the $20 million research facility being built by Ohio-based Battelle and the Higher Education and Applied Technology Center off Route 22 near Aberdeen is the only region poised for building. "That's the only development I see occurring, and it's totally contiguous to Battelle."

He said a commission on school construction he formed this year has helped county and state officials and school board members identify stumbling blocks that hinder efforts to relieve crowding. He said he wants the county to be "very aggressive" in building schools, but acknowledges that the state's looming budget deficit could affect the county's progress. "They should not bury the state budget ax in the backs of the counties," he said.

He sees a strong link between what children learn and the high-tech jobs the county seeks to create: "We have to stay contemporary with education as it relates to computers and technology."

Harkins faces a further challenge: lingering suspicion in some voters' minds that results from a land transfer involving the county and a development group that includes several of Harkins' political supporters.

Harkins called the transfer a routine matter. The state prosecutor recently cleared him of wrongdoing.

Harkins remains unapologetic, and says Gablers Shore LLC partners were treated like anyone else. "If they're entitled to something under the law, they'll receive it," he said. "If they aren't, they won't - these folks or other folks."

When Harkins isn't overseeing county business, he enjoys gardening and doing projects at the Whiteford home he shares with his wife, Debra. They have two daughters.

A Harford native, he graduated from Bel Air High School, and in 1985 earned his associate's degree in criminal justice from Harford Community College.

Harkins says that if he wins a second term, bringing in jobs for residents would remain a priority. According to the Department of Labor and Licensing Regulations, annual average employment in the county has grown by 7,557 jobs, or 12 percent, since 1998.

"It gives people the choice to stay home and work here," he said. "It's quality of life - a good job ensures a good house. That's really central to what we've done in the past four years."

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