Tax cut, pay raise are likely in budget

Property owners, teachers may benefit from Harkins' plan

`People will be very pleased'

Money for sheriff's deputies, Patterson Mill complex possible

March 27, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

When County Executive James M. Harkins presents his budget to the Harford County Council on Thursday, it is expected to contain something residents haven't experienced in a quarter-century - a property tax cut.

Although details of the budget are secret, it is expected to feature pay raises for teachers, funds to hire more sheriff's deputies, money to start construction of a new high school-middle school complex and funds to improve the county's ambulance service.

"The budget will have something in it for every constituent," said James C. Richardson, director of human resources. "There will be improved public safety, improved education and enhanced fire and rescue services."

County officials declined to say how much the property tax rate would be cut, but Richardson said, "It will be a noticeable decrease." The last time the property tax rate was reduced in the county was 1980. The current rate is $1.092 per $100 of assessed property value.

"This is the first time that we have been in the financial position to address many of the needs of the county," said John J. O'Neill Jr., director of administration. "We never had the money before."

He said the budget will show "a healthy increase in revenue from property and income taxes," and that the "public will share in the county's prosperity."

O'Neill added: "People will be very pleased."

Harkins first hinted in December that he was looking at the possibility of a tax cut.

At that time, he said an improving economy, a big jump in the size of the county's work force and a surplus had prompted him to look at the possibility of a tax cut for the first time since taking office in 1998.

"In the past," he said, "I've never even had the luxury of being able to even consider such a thing, not until this year."

Teachers could be one of the chief beneficiaries of the county's improving economy.

Teachers' salaries are expected to be increased during each of the next two years to make them more competitive with teachers' salaries in surrounding counties.

"I feel confident that this year will be a record year for pay raises if we are able to provide the pay increases we are seeking," said school board President Robert B. Thomas Jr. "It will be a very, very significant increase, but it will not take us to where we would like to be."

Thomas said the board is not seeking to match salaries with those in Montgomery or Prince George's counties, but it would like to be competitive with Frederick, Cecil and Carroll counties.

Since September 2001, the salaries for starting teachers in Harford have failed to keep pace with those in most other counties. Over this span, Harford's beginning salaries dropped from 12th to 21st of the state's 24 districts. Only Allegany, Garrett and Somerset counties pay their beginning teachers less.

The starting salary for teachers in Harford County was $33,957 last year. This compared with $39,457 in Montgomery County, where teachers were paid the most.

In Cecil County, starting teachers earned $1,831 more a year than their counterparts in Harford.

Thomas said in December that teachers' salaries needed serious adjustments. "These people are too critical to be left behind," he said.

Harkins and other administration officials agree.

"Over a two-year process, we will bring our teachers' salaries back to the middle of the pack," said Richardson. "We will make salaries here competitive and keep them competitive."

On school construction, Richardson said the budget would come close to meeting the school board's requested funding to start construction of the Patterson Mill middle and high school complex to be built just south of Bel Air.

O'Neill said the county would use cash to pay for its share and the state's portion of the construction costs of the school complex.

Because the complex is needed to reduce crowding in other schools, the county is paying the full cost of construction with a hope, but no guarantee, that it will be reimbursed by the state for about half the cost.

"To be reimbursed [for the state's share], we need to use cash," O'Neill said. "We can't bond it or finance it with borrowed money."

At least a portion of the county's newfound wealth comes from a big increase in its employment base.

Harford led the state in job growth during the most recent reporting period. The county posted a 6.7 percent increase in its labor force, which equated to 4,713 jobs.

County Treasurer John Scotten Jr. said the increase in jobs has boosted the county's revenue base, but he declined to say how much.

In April of last year, Harkins presented an operating budget of $411.9 million to the County Council. This was an increase of $29.3 million, or 7.1 percent over the existing budget at that time.

It included no new taxes, but there were some increases in the fees paid by residents.

The tipping fee that trash-haulers pay to dump their garbage at county-owned sites rose $3, to $45. The budget called for a 25-cent increase in the 50-cent emergency 911 fee on monthly telephone bills.

Nearly $404,000 was designated for the hiring of 10 sheriff's deputies.

"I think the people of the county will be surprised by some of the things we are doing" in the proposed new budget, O'Neill said. "I was."

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