Harkins' budget plan draws praise, questions

Taking on more debt worries council president

School, police funds are lauded

April 03, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

For the first time since taking over as the county executive in 1998, James M. Harkins has money to spend, and his proposed budget for the fiscal year starting in July is drawing mixed reactions.

The $671.9 million spending plan, an increase of 22.7 percent, has County Council President Robert S. Wagner worried about the county taking on more debt and hurting its ability to pay its bills in the future.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly doesn't share Wagner's concerns. "It's a progressive budget that provides a lot of things for the average citizen," he said. "But it's not like a drunken sailor on a spending spree.

"It's a good, solid, in-the-black budget," he said. "I like the fact that there are no so-called sin taxes."

Wagner questioned the administration's decision to roll back the property tax rate 2 cents when the council is working on legislation to impose an impact fee of up to $8,269 on new houses to help pay for school construction.

He said the property tax cut would take about $3.7 million from the county's revenue base, which might be more than the impact fee increase.

"We have gone through some very lean times the past three or four years," Wagner said. "Now, because we have a little bit of cash, we are creating huge debt for the future. This gives me reason for concern."

Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said, "For the most part, I like the budget."

He endorsed the hiring of 20 new sheriff's deputies. "We tried to get them last year," he said, "but we were told there was no money."

Guthrie said the 2 cent reduction in the property tax rate "looks good, but it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. With the inflated values of houses, people are not going to see any new money in their pockets."

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky acknowledged Wagner's concerns but said he has no such fears. He thinks the money will be there when the bills come in.

"All the signs say that we are having a positive economic recovery," he said. "Our job base is rising, and many of the new jobs are quality positions paying good wages. We are going to have a better income base in the future."

Slutzky, a former Harford County teacher, praised Harkins for his efforts to boost teachers' salaries and his plan to hire 227 new school workers, including 162 teachers.

The budget calls for teachers to receive a pay increase of at least 7 percent this year and a promise of a similar raise next year.

"That was needed to attract quality teachers and to retain quality teachers," Slutzky said. "I appreciate that. Education has been on the short side of the budget for a long time."

Cassilly said Harkins was "spending on things he should be spending on, like education, where we will reap the benefits in the long term."

"I was very pleased with the full funding of the Board of Education budget," he said.

"I was very pleased with the addition of the sheriff's deputies. I was very pleased with the reduction of the tax rate."

Guthrie expressed disappointment that there was no money in the spending plan to address a pet road project in his district, improvements to Judy Way and Eloise Lane near Edgewood.

Under terms of an agreement reached with the county several years ago, Guthrie said that the Department of Public Works would share the $1.7 million cost of repairing the private roads and then accept responsibility for their maintenance in the future.

He said the roads, which serve 161 homes, "are in deplorable condition."

"We were told that if the residents paid the first $900,000 toward fixing the roads, the county would pick up the remaining costs. I didn't see any money in the budget for that," he said.

Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith also called it a good budget. "I'm more pleased than anything that Patterson Mill is moving ahead," she said of the slightly more than $28 million in the budget for the start of construction on the $60 million middle and high school complex near Bel Air. "It is really needed.

"I'm pleased that there is money to help pay for retirees' health benefits, and I'm pleased with the school budget," she said.

She said revenue projections indicate that there will be adequate funding to take on the additional costs.

Gloria Moon, a member of the Joppa/Joppatowne Community Council who regularly attends County Council meetings, said she didn't have enough knowledge about the budget to comment. "The information hasn't gotten out yet to the real people," she said.

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