Executive warns of lean budget year

In state of county speech, Harkins notes expected decline in Md. funding

`Another $8 million in state cuts'

High bond rating praised

officials plan new school

February 15, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County budget managers, who struggled last year to cope with a $3.4 million cut in state funding, face a significantly greater challenge to make ends meet for the fiscal year beginning in July.

During his State of the County address last week, County Executive James M. Harkins said the cut in state funding this year could be more than double last year's loss.

"Last year, we lost $3.4 million in state aid to Harford County, Harkins told members of the County Council during the speech. "This year, we could face another $8 million in state cuts."

John J. O'Neill Jr., the county's director of administration, said the state cuts this year will hit particularly hard at transportation funds used to patch potholes, fix bridges and plow snow. There will be less money for parks and recreation, teacher pay raises and Harford Community College.

Despite the anticipated cuts, O'Neill said county worker layoffs are not anticipated "unless we get hit with more expenses. We have made provisions to live within our means," he said. "Actually, we are trying to live below our means."

He said workers are not likely to get cost-of-living wage increase, new hires will be rare, and department heads are being told, "Only ask for things that are absolutely necessary."

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said the amount of the reduction in state funding was the big surprise in Harkins' talk. Guthrie represents Joppa and Edgewood.

"That's a lot of money," he said. "I don't know how they are going to handle a cut that large. Last year nobody got pay raises and every department had to cut 2 percent from its budget."

Harkins called the state funding issue the bad news.

He also offered a dose of more favorable news in his approximately 30-minute talk, which was interrupted eight times by applause from council members, his Cabinet representatives and about 25 residents.

"I am pleased to report that Harford County is strong and financially solid," Harkins said.

The first interruption came after he said that in an era when many counties "consider themselves lucky just to hold onto the credit rating they have, we have won not one, not two, not three, but four consecutive bond rating increases."

He said Harford's AA-plus rating last month from three major New York-based bond-rating agencies "was one step away from AAA, the ultimate recognition of achievement in sound financial management."

He also said the exodus of quality teachers to counties paying higher wages has slowed.

In an attempt to address the concerns of a growing number of parents with children in public schools, Harkins said the county has moved to do something it has never done before: forward-fund the construction of a new middle-high school complex at Patterson Mill.

Under such an arrangement, the county would pay the cost of the $52 million school construction with the hope, but no guarantee, that the state will chip in its normal 50 percent in the future.

He further noted that deputies working for the Sheriff's Office have seen their salaries rise from the bottom of the regional barrel, and that the county has embarked on obtaining a new emergency communication system to replace one so outdated that repair parts are no longer available.

Council President Robert S. Wagner followed Harkins to the podium, and he directed a big portion of his talk to efforts to improve the county's public school system, which county officials acknowledge has reached a crisis stage.

"Never before has the state of Maryland been so short on funding for the educational needs of the counties," said Wagner. "This could not be a worse scenario for Harford County, as this county has grown rapidly over the past few years and the need for a new school has become paramount."

He said the council supports the county executive's plan to build a new middle-high school complex, knowing that there is "a strong possibility" that the state will not pay its share anytime soon.

"That is why this council sought enabling legislation from the Harford County delegation to help us accomplish our menu of fair and diversified funding options," Wagner said.

"This council finds itself dismayed with the recent action from Annapolis failing to grant us the tools we need to properly fund our education needs," he continued. "We will take what is given us and not give up on what is needed to accomplish the ultimate goal."

He expressed his disappointment in the delegation's rejection of county requests for legislation that would allow the council to impose new taxes and fees on residents to pay for new schools and renovate school buildings in need of repair.

Wagner warned that county residents can expect "another, more drastic lowering" of the school capacity percentage limit that the county uses to halt preliminary approval of new housing developments.

In October, the council passed a bill that lowered the limit from 120 percent to 115 percent. This means that if the enrollment at any school in a school district tops 115 percent, the county would halt preliminary approval for new residential development in that district.

In response to Harkins' address, Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing Bel Air, said he was most pleased with the county executive's expressions of a willingness to work with the County Council.

"We are not always going to see eye to eye," Cassilly said, "but I appreciate him saying, `We have a lot of work to do - let's do it.'"

Cassilly added: "It has got to be a joint effort. He has to give a little and we have to give a little and all work for the betterment of the people."

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