County Executive James M. Harkins sounded a note of fiscal concern in his State of the County Address on Tuesday evening.
"The $1.7 billion Maryland budget deficit will challenge the state of our county," the county executive said.
Harkins listed several causes of economic stress, including:
Increasing health care costs: For fiscal year 2004, health costs are increasing by an estimated 27 percent, or more than $3.5 million, the county executive said. "For the current fiscal year, additional health care costs have also come due because of higher-than-anticipated expenses in both fiscal year 2002 and fiscal year 2003 in an amount in excess of $2 million," Harkins said. "Other insurance, including general liability coverage and workers' compensation insurance for our fire and EMS volunteers, is increasing by over $900,000."
Decreasing tax revenue: "Our income tax and property tax revenue for fiscal year 2003 are currently projected to be less than budgeted amounts by $4,000,000," Harkins said.
Impending state budget cuts: "We will not know the full extent of this impact until the General Assembly acts on the governor's budget," Harkins said.
Increasing possibility of war: "The possibility of our country going to war in the near future could affect our economy, our energy costs, and our public safety expenses," the county executive said.
In the face of these problems, Harkins said, "I am pleased to report that Harford County is prepared to weather the budgetary storms ahead." He attributed the county's financial stability to the work of the County Council, the determination of the business community and the dedication of county citizens who volunteer their time and efforts for public projects.
For the coming year, Harkins said, "My focus will be on covering the basics:
"We want to keep our people working.
"We want to keep improving our public safety system.
"We want to keep good teachers, make sure our children have a clean, safe place to learn and the books and technology equipment they need to succeed.
"We must provide the facilities our senior citizens need to live full and productive lives in our community."
In meeting these objectives, Harkins stressed the importance of voluntary efforts.
"As we cover the essential elements, we will depend even more on the efforts of our churches and our volunteers to provide services local government cannot afford. This is where we can get more bang for the buck," he said.
In his address, Harkins listed several specific initiatives for the coming year:
On education, the county executive said, "As our county continues to attract cutting-edge technology companies, we must ensure our citizens are prepared to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Education and training is key. Until the state budget is complete, we will not know to what extent funding for our schools will be impacted by the deficit. More than ever before, it is critical that our education dollars be spent as effectively as possible," he said.
"We must maintain our focus on critical priorities, including the completion of the math and science magnet school in Aberdeen. And we must move forward on the construction of a new middle/high school complex in the Bel Air area - one that is built to meet the needs of the future. We must stay on target to complete school renovations throughout our county," he said.
On public safety, Harkins said, "We are installing the backbone of a long-overdue, 800- megahertz digital radio system. Over the next two years, Harford County will move from its outdated public safety communications system, a system so old we can't get replacement parts, to state-of-the-art digital equipment."
On work related to Aberdeen Proving Ground, he said: "Aberdeen Proving Ground is asserting itself not only as the world-class research and development, testing and evaluation center, but as a destination for new federal laboratory, training and headquarter facilities.
"Some [of] the largest defense contractors in the world are considering APG as home to new operations, and Harford County pledges to keep this momentum going. Last year the mark was set, with $140 million new federal dollars for facilities at APG - the largest allocation in 10 years."
On senior housing, Harkins said: "We must re-energize efforts to bring expanded housing opportunities for seniors in Harford County. To that end, I have asked Economic Development Director Tom Sadowski, Carol Lienhard of the Office of Aging, and our public works and planning and zoning staff to put together a coordinated effort to address the lack of senior housing.
"Our goal is to identify new opportunities, overcome the obstacles, and ensure all county government agencies are working together for a positive outcome for seniors and their families."
In summarizing his outlook, Harkins said, "With a lean budget year ahead, we will be challenged to provide the solid services our citizens expect and deserve. However, it will be done. We will not be able to do all that we would like, but we can do what we must, if we remain united in our resolve to build a stronger, safer, better Harford County."