More money in budget can't please everyone

Harkins calls spending plan `appropriate,' bristles at Edgewater Village criticism

`To say county doesn't care ... I'm flabbergasted'

April 10, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

County Executive James M. Harkins is learning firsthand about something he heard when he took office in 1998 -- it is harder to govern when you have money than when you don't.

He has been criticized by Council President Robert S. Wagner for proposing a property tax cut at a time when the council is working on legislation to impose an impact fee of up to $8,259 on new homes to help pay for school construction.

Councilman Lance C. Miller, who wants to reduce size of the fee nearly 40 percent, said his colleagues could come up with the money by cutting the administration's bloated budget.

But the criticism that seems to bother Harkins the most -- the thing that he says "has really got my dander up" -- has to do with roads. Councilman Dion F. Guthrie charges that Harkins has turned his back on the citizens of Edgewater Village by not designating funds in the budget for fixing roads that everyone agrees are in need of work.

"To say the county doesn't care ... to say that we have turned our back on these people, I'm flabbergasted," said Harkins.

"I know there are potholes there," he said. "If they were county roads, I would have filled them yesterday. But, in essence, I would be paving private roads with county taxpayers' dollars. I cannot do that under the law."

The roads -- Eloise Lane and Judy Way -- were built in the 1970s as part of the Edgewater Village development. According to Guthrie, the roads were made of substandard materials, and substandard contracting practices were used.

He said the developer has since gone bankrupt.

Harkins said the law requires the community to pay to bring the roads up to code, before they can be taken over by the county and maintained in the future.

Part of the problem is that the cost keeps rising. Households in the community would now each have to pay $823.35 a year for 10 years to cover the cost of the repairs.

"That's a lot of money for these folks," Harkins said. "It is not a rich section of the county. Maybe there are grants out there that we can use. We are looking at other possibilities."

While he acknowledges that the two roads need to be repaired, Harkins said it not fair to say the administration has neglected this part of the county.

"There has been no other community in the county that during my tenure as county executive we have put as much focus on," said Harkins. "Not one, not my neighborhood. Not anybody's neighborhood."

He listed a number of projects and programs the county participated in to help improve the area around Edgewater Village, including:

Community cleanup programs in which county workers and equipment were used to remove 75 to 80 tons of trash over the years.

The opening of the Police Athletic League Center, first in a storefront and later in a new $900,000 building. It's a place where children can go between the time they get off from school until their parents come home. It features computer laboratory, a fitness center, a playground with a basketball court and a day care center operated by Catholic Charities.

Harkins said there is $2.3 million in his proposed budget to complete the construction of the gymnasium at the center.

The steering of Fannie Mae funds to a help a nonprofit company renovate the Edgewater Village Apartment complex, including the installation of new kitchens and baths.

Construction of a tot lot.

The County Housing Agency used $887,000 in federal funds to renovate 35 homes in Edgewater Village. Although the investments were called loans to residents living in the homes, the money does not have to be repaid if the residents continue to live in the properties for five years.

Establishment of a grant to give mothers participating in the WIC program funds to purchase fruits and vegetables at a farmers market at the Edgewood train station. The county also provided free bus transportation from Edgewater Village to the farmers market.

"This was thinking outside the box," said Harkins. "It was not done anywhere else in the county."

Harkins called the $671.9 million spending plan for the fiscal year beginning in July "a reasonable and appropriate use of public dollars."

"Our primary focus is on public education," he said. "Or secondary focus is public safety. I have not heard anyone criticize the things we are funding. They are just saying, `Wow, that's a big increase.'"

He said it was a need-based budget that still fell short of meeting the requests of some departments, including the sheriff's office.

"They requested 40 new deputies. We are looking at adding 20," he said.

Harkins said the 22.7 percent spending increase did not result in a budget "awash with fat. If anything, it a very austere budget given where we have been the last seven years in our ability to fund certain things."

He added: "It's a good budget. I think it's pretty efficient, and it includes a 2-cent property tax cut."

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