Budget surplus to fund school project, Harkins says

In interview, executive also promotes benefits of extending sewerage

Harford County

September 19, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County will post a budget surplus of more than $7 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, thanks primarily to the state's improved economic health, according to County Executive James M. Harkins.

But don't come looking for handouts, Harkins warns taxpayers. He already has identified a use for the unexpected bonus.

"I can tell you right now, it's going to be thrown on the table toward ... the Patterson Mill project," he said of the surplus and the county's plans to pay for the construction of a $52 million middle and high school complex just south of Bel Air.

Harkins discussed the budget surplus and his plans for it during a wide-ranging interview with The Sun at his office recently. He also said:

He expects that his recently proposed legislation to extend public sewerage beyond the county's development envelope would benefit dozens of families with failing septic systems and pump new life into failing commercial businesses along U.S. 1.

Parents sending children to a preschool at Fallston Presbyterian Church on Route 152 have every right to be upset over not being informed that the school had high levels of a potentially cancer-causing gasoline additive in its drinking water.

He feels the County Council should implement its authority to impose an impact fee on new homes before asking the General Assembly for additional taxing authority to pay for school construction and renovation.

While he is on record in support of slot machines in the county, he does not want them at Ripken Stadium, as proposed by House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

He is pushing officials of the Arundel Sand & Gravel Co. to reach an agreement with residents living close to its giant quarry near Aberdeen that will address residents' concerns and enable the company to expand its business operations.

Harkins is in the second year of his second and final four-year term as county executive.

The bulk of the expected budget surplus comes from higher-than-anticipated income tax revenue; an improved economy has more people working and paying taxes.

Concerning his plans for the Patterson Mill middle and high school complex, Harkins said he is "out on a limb" as a result of his commitment to fund the project without the benefit of state money that usually covers half the cost of building and furnishing a school.

The county is prepared to pay the full cost of the school, with the hope - but no guarantee - that it will be reimbursed by the state for its share.

If there is any hope of being reimbursed by the state, Harkins said, the county has to pay cash for the school project. It would not be reimbursed for funds coming from the sale of bonds to pay for the school.

Sewerage proposal

Responding to strong resident opposition to a plan to extend public sewerage to areas outside the development envelope, Harkins said the bill was a response to calls by dozens of residents with failing septic systems.

"Failing septic [has] occurred across the county," he said, "and we are trying to be responsive."

Opponents, including council members and citizen groups, have argued that an extension of public sewerage beyond the development envelope violates the terms of the county's recently approved Master Land Use Plan.

"This bill is designed to benefit developers," Gloria Moon, a member of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Council, testified at a recent hearing on the administration bill. "It will benefit a few big developers."

Virginia Sauers, a resident of the Benson community, said she fears that an extension of the sewer line would destroy the character of her neighborhood by bringing in new commercial development.

But Harkins said, "We've done these projects outside the envelope before."

One of the latest was completed in 1999 in Whiteford, a small town near the Pennsylvania border. Working with Delta, Pa., the county installed a public sewage system in Whiteford where half of the septic systems were failing, inadequate or suspect.

Council members Dion F. Guthrie, Veronica L. Chenowith and Lance C. Miller introduced amendments to the bill that limits the new sewerage line to a 14.5-acre parcel within the development envelope. It eliminated about 85 percent of the area where the new sewerage line was proposed.

"We didn't want to go against the Master Plan," Guthrie said.

"They eliminate a lot of what we were trying to do," County Attorney Robert S. McCord said of the amendments Friday.

The council will take up the bill at its next meeting Oct. 5.

Harkins recently signed a bill that imposes a six-month moratorium on the construction of new gasoline stations in the county. It is designed to give the county time to adopt new zoning codes and regulations to help prevent gasoline leaks, like those in Fallston and Aberdeen that have contaminated wells and the public water system with methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE.

"I don't want to mislead people," Harkins said. "This is not a remedy to the [MTBE leak] problem. But it is a step in the right direction."

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