Harkins moves to balance budget

Higher insurance costs, lower tax revenues help create shortfall, he says

Harford County

January 26, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

As tax revenues slow and health costs soar, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins has taken a number of steps, including instituting a hiring freeze, to help balance a $306 million operating budget.

"These are challenging fiscal times," Harkins told members of the Harford legislative delegation Friday.

He said medical insurance costs "have risen dramatically," by about 30 percent, or $3.7 million, for the fiscal year starting in July. Property taxes are about $800,000 below projections, primarily because of a decrease in the property taxes received on public utilities.

He said income tax receipts are declining and are expected to be $3.2 million below original estimates. He attributed the decline to an erratic stock market.

The combination of the higher medical expenses, reduced property taxes and lower income taxes will leave the county with a $7 million shortfall, the executive said.

Concerning the job freeze, Merrie Street, a spokeswoman for Harkins, said each position will be "looked at on a case-by-case basis. If we see that county services won't suffer unduly, we will hold off on hiring." The county has 1,400 workers.

Harkins said he has asked each county department, including public works, administration and economic development, for a 2 percent reversion in the current budget. That is expected to save about $1 million.

Any raises for county workers resulting from a recent consultant study evaluating their jobs will be delayed.

Street said the study, which evaluated every job to determine whether it should be upgraded or downgraded, "has not been thrown away, but it won't be implemented until the county economic situation improves."

To reduce health care costs, Harkins said, the county government has formed consortiums with other groups, including Harford Community College, the Board of Education, the sheriff's office and the town of Aberdeen, to seek lower insurance rates.

He said the county is continuing the health care program in which it picks up a percentage of the costs for workers involved in programs to quit smoking, lose weight or otherwise improve their health.

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