Tax revenue $4.7 million over forecast

Greater employment credited for increase to local treasury

Schools, Sheriff's Office to benefit

May 23, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The improved health of the state's economy is putting more money into Harford County's coffers.

John J. O'Neill Jr., the county's director of administration, said Friday that higher-than-anticipated income tax revenue will bring the county an extra $4.7 million, and that the bonus could go even higher.

"This is not the result of higher taxes," he said, noting that the county's tax rate has not changed since 1999. "It's a result of the improving economy that has more people working and paying taxes."

O'Neill said the county always takes a "safe and very conservative" approach to its revenue estimates. It draws on the advice of a volunteer Spending Affordability Committee made up of bankers, business leaders and accountants.

"They make a prediction, and we base our budget on their prediction," he said. "It's a lot like predicting the weather, but it's a lot harder. A weather forecast is usually looking a week ahead. We are trying to look a year ahead."

O'Neill said the county usually underestimates its revenue, but such was not the case last year when income tax revenue came in $450,000 below what was expected. Budget managers had to make up the difference.

"We would have been in the red," said O'Neill, "and, by law, we can't be in the red."

O'Neill said some of the extra money will go to pay the debt service on bonds to finance the construction of the new Patterson Mill middle and high school project near Bel Air, and for the renovation of North Harford High School in Pylesville.

He said the county's Emergency Operation Center would receive money to help finance the installation of a computer-aided dispatch system that would reduce the time it takes to get a police car or ambulance to the scene of an emergency.

Ernie Crist, manager of the Emergency Operation Center, said the new system would feature a vehicle locator.

Sheriff's cars and ambulances will be equipped with a global positioning satellite device that will signal their location for display on a map, Crist said.

"In an emergency we will be able to see what police car is closest to the call. An ambulance that has dropped off a patient and is en route back to the station may be passing close to an accident. It could be diverted."

The higher-than-expected tax revenue also will help pay for the restoration of athletic fields at Havre de Grace High School and an upgrade to Bel Air Hall at Harford Community College.

O'Neill said a large portion of the increased revenue, $753,071, will go to the Board of Education to cover the costs associated with increased student enrollment.

When the school board calculated the number of students it had in September 2002, it did not take into account a change in the state formula for phasing in all-day kindergarten. As a result it underestimated enrollment. The county's maintenance-of-effort funding to the school system is based on the number of students served.

The Sheriff's Office will receive an additional $100,000 to cover the recent sharp increase in the price of gasoline.

Teachers looking for a pay raise are not expected to benefit from the added income tax revenue, but this does not rule out more money in their pockets during the fiscal year beginning July 1.

O'Neill said that other revenue sources - including an increase in the tipping fees paid by trash haulers and higher fees for filing lien tax papers involved with the sale of a home - could go toward raises for teachers.

He said these fees, along with the money from an $860,767 grant from the state to cover the loss of property taxes from a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. power generation plant as a result of deregulation would likely finance a 1 percent to 1.5 percent raise for teachers.

That may be the limit for teacher raises.

"There is no way we will be able to honor more than 1.5 percent," said council President Robert S. Wagner. "That's beyond the realm of possibility."

Wagner said the council has secured a revenue stream to cover the 1.5 percent raise. "But we have raised fees as much as we can."

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican representing Aberdeen and a former teacher, hopes to find more money for teachers.

He said all the surrounding counties are paying more and that the disparity makes it more difficult for Harford to compete for teachers.

"I'm looking to see if there is any possible way we can do a little better," Slutzky said. "Maybe some of that higher-than-anticipated tax revenue can trickle down."

County retirees could benefit from the budget that is scheduled to be voted on by the council Tuesday.

O'Neill said there is money in the budget to pay a portion of the monthly health care fees of retired county workers. He said that workers who retired before 1993 and receive no benefits would receive $350 a month beginning in July. The amount would be $400 for a retiree who is married.

"It is something we have been wanting to do for a long time," O'Neill said. "But we didn't have the money. Some of these people are paying almost their whole pension for health care."

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