No tax increase expected in Harford budget plan

Increased health costs, frozen salaries for workers part of Harkins' proposal

March 28, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Despite a bleak state economic forecast, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins is expected to submit a 2003-2004 budget to the County Council on Tuesday that asks for no tax increases but would freeze salaries and ask employees to chip in a greater share of health care costs, say county officials.

The county has been beset not only by the state's projected $2 billion budget deficit, but also by shortfalls in income and property taxes, according to budget briefing documents given to officials earlier this month.

Budget totals for fiscal year 2003-2004 will not be released until today, but briefing documents offer a good indication of where the money will be spent.

The public schools, which have had annual operating budget increases of $7 million to $10 million the past few years, will receive a $1.3 million boost in the coming year, according to budget documents. That amount is above the state's annual maintenance-of-effort funding requirement of $967,182, documents show, but significantly lower than the schools' $9.5 million request.

County employees will also be asked to pay a larger share of their health-care costs; a hiring freeze is in place for all but critical positions; and no raises are planned, said Lance C. Miller, a Republican councilman who represents the northern rural tier.

The proposed budget was designed by the Harkins administration to spread the burden, Miller said. "I don't think you can specifically see one department that took a big hit," Miller said.

He said savings were realized for this budget after Harkins asked department heads to review the fiscal year 2003 budget and "give back" $2 million to carry over to the 2004 budget. He also asked them to keep their requests to a minimum.

With those reductions, plus changes in health-care payments by workers, the hiring freeze, suspended tuition reimbursement, "severely curtailed" in-house training and limited equipment purchase, the county was able to submit a general fund budget that is almost $4 million less than the current year, budget documents show.

The general fund, the county's primary operating account, is key to the operating budget, which also comprises other individual funds for solid waste, highways, and water and sewer service.

Don Morrison, schools spokesman, said that the sparse county education funding is "disappointing" as the schools face tougher federal and state requirements to improve education quality.

"You understand why, but you're still disappointed," Morrison said, adding that Harkins has been a consistent school supporter. "We know that it's a tough year."

James Richardson, human resources director, said changes in sharing health care costs will mean the average employee will pay about an extra $24 each biweekly pay period. "It's a significant leap up from what they were paying," he said.

He said the county would add a third health plan option and inform workers of their options -- and the increased contribution. "We haven't gone out on our `shock and awe' tour, but we've talked to several of them, and they know this is a serious problem," Richardson said. "Everybody's going to have to dig a little deeper."

Harkins and John J. O'Neill, director of administration, declined to be interviewed, referring to the protocol of delivering the budget to the council before discussing it.

But county spokeswoman Merrie Street said that "it's going to be a very tough two years. He [Harkins] realized he needed to take action now -- not later -- to begin tightening the belt."

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