In a budget described by county officials as the most severe in a decade, Harford County Executive James M. Harkins is going to propose spending less than 1 percent more in fiscal year 2004 than the current budget when he presents the plan to the County Council on Tuesday night.
Adding to the uncertainty is up to $10 million that hangs in the balance of budget negotiations in Annapolis.
"Bottom line, we will have layoffs if we face further cuts," Harkins said, adding that the county and unions would consider furloughs and other measures before full job cuts.
Salary increases recommended in a pay-equity study of county jobs would also have to be postponed, he said.
The $409.8 million budget is an increase of about 0.86 percent from the fiscal 2003 budget. But county officials noted that the slight increase is in funds that are strictly designated within the operating budget and that the general fund operating budget contains nearly $4 million less than the current year's.
The proposed general fund budget - the largest of the county's operating accounts - of $302.2 million is $3.8 million less than the current budget year's, partly because departmental reviews of this year's budget that returned $2.1 million to the county to carry over to the 2004 fiscal year budget.
The county added changes in health care payments by workers, a hiring freeze, suspended tuition reimbursement, "severely curtailed" in-house training and limited equipment purchase to further reduce general fund spending, Harkins said.
County administrators went through as many as five rounds of budget cuts, Harkins said. Cutting tuition reimbursement, training and school beautification funding were especially painful, he said, because of the rewards they provide.
The capital budget of $82 million is "at an all-time low," Harkins said Friday. The Board of Education is to receive the largest portion, $23 million, or 28 percent. Libraries are to receive the smallest allotment, $930,000, or a little more than 1 percent.
Robert S. Wagner, president of the County Council, described the proposed budget as "more severe than any I've seen from the state level and local level" in his 12 years on the council but noted that the economic forecast is bad and not improving.
Robert G. Cassilly, a first-term Republican County Council member who represents Bel Air, said that despite the lean budget, he sees opportunities for the county to address growth-related issues.
"Not everything requires a massive infusion of capital," he said, noting that processes such as comprehensive rezoning don't require funding but can have a big impact on quality-of-life issues in the county. "Land-use issues are concerning people, and the council is expected to deal with those."