When County Executive James M. Harkins signs off on Harford's new budget in coming weeks, it will mark the launch of the county's most extensive school construction program in more than a decade.
"I can't remember a time when we had two major school construction projects under way at the same time," said John J. O'Neill Jr., director of administration. "And I've been here for 13 years. I don't think it has ever happened before."
O'Neill was referring to money in the budget for the start of work on the new Patterson Mill middle and high school complex near Bel Air and a major renovation of 50-year-old North Harford High School in Pylesville.
"I don't see how anyone can say we are not spending money on education when they can look at the budget and see two projects of this magnitude moving forward," said O'Neill.
O'Neill said the administration is forward-funding the $52 million Patterson Mill project. The county will pay for the full cost of the project with the hope -- but no guarantee -- that the state will pay half the bill at a later date.
Deb Merlock, vice president of the Harford Council of PTAs, praised the administration, saying that the two schools would go a long way toward eliminating the crowding that school officials and County Council members say has become a crisis.
Merlock, who has been critical of the administration for not doing more for public schools, said there probably was a time when two schools were under way at once, "but I can't remember when."
Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said that even in good financial times it is rare to see two projects under way at the same time. "I would like to dream that in very lucrative times this could happen," she said "but you don't expect it in difficult times."
`A major step'
"This is a major step," said school board President Robert S. Magee, who agreed with his longtime colleague on the board, Robert B. Thomas Jr., that more work is needed, especially in upgrading existing school buildings.
"A lot of work still needs to be done," Thomas said. "We are making progress, but it may not be at the speed that some people want."
Construction workers are scheduled to begin the $50.9 million renovation at North Harford as soon as school lets out, according to Kathleen Sanner, supervisor of planning and construction for the school system. If everything goes as planned, she said, ground will be broken for the Patterson Mill project in April.
In other education-related matters, the County Council voted Tuesday on an amendment that would boost the cost-of-living pay raise to teachers and staff support workers from 1.5 percent to 2 percent.
The administration had an amendment taking it to 1.5 percent, but Councilman Richard C. Slutzky said that was not enough.
Slutzky said he ran his election campaign on the premise that education would be his No. 1 priority.
During the session he pointed out that during most of the last two decades Harford County has ranked last, or near last, in per-capita spending on students.
"Does this in any way indicate education is a priority?" he asked his colleagues.
He offered the amendment that boosted the teacher's cost-of-living raise to 2 percent. It passed by a vote of 5-2.
Council President Robert S. Wagner and council member Veronica L. Chenowith voted against the measure.
Wagner said he could not disagree with Slutzky's argument that teachers deserved more money, but he expressed concern that there was no revenue source to pay for the increase, not only next year but in future years.
Another amendment, proposed by Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, put $25,000 into the budget for a study of the need to renovate Bel Air High School.
He said conditions at the 55-year-old school building were "an embarrassment to the county."
He said, "Now that we have North Harford and Patterson Mill in the bag, we need to focus on Bel Air High School."
He said the main thrust of his amendment, which passed by a vote of 7-0, was to have Bel Air High in the budget just in case state funds became available in the future. "You can't spend any money on a project," he said, "if it's not in the budget."
Cassilly also noted that the two amendments passed with enough votes to override a veto by the county executive.
Councilwoman Cecilia M. Stepp said the vote on the teachers' pay raise made her "proud to be a member of this council. I'm very proud to be part of a council that put education first in Harford County. This is one of those times that we put our money where our mouth is. I'm so proud. I thought I was going to cry."
$444.9 million budget
The $444.9 million budget for the fiscal year beginning in July holds the line on property and income taxes. The property tax rate is the same at $1.92 per $100 of assessed value, and the piggyback income tax rate remains at 3.06 percent.
Residents will pay more for certain county services.
The budget calls for trash haulers to pay $8 more a ton to dump their trash at a waste plant or landfill. This cost is expected to be passed on to residents.
O'Neill said there will be a 25-cent increase in phone bills to help pay for an expansion of the county's emergency operation center and for new equipment at the center.
The fee for filing lien tax papers involved in the sale of a home will be increased $15 to $50.