Growth is Craig's toughest challenge

Development can be healthy if planned, says new executive

`We just need to be ready for it'

He supports clustering homes, businesses to save farmland

July 10, 2005|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

New Harford County Executive David R. Craig makes no apologies for the growth likely to take place on his watch.

"Am I pro-growth? It's going to happen," Craig said hours before his swearing-in Thursday. "We just need to be ready for it and be able to control it, and make sure it goes where we want it to go and where services exist."

Perhaps no issue has galvanized Harford residents in recent years like the desire to balance a rural way of life with development pressures.

Though many residents fear the whittling away of their country setting, Craig said growth can be healthy if smartly planned. The 56-year-old Republican calls for "communities," not "developments."

He believes in clustering homes and businesses to save farmland. "Put your growth in places like Havre de Grace and Aberdeen and Bel Air. Then you're able to save those rural areas," Craig said.

As the county prepares to consider hundreds of property owners' requests for rezoning, shaping growth will be Craig's biggest task during the next 16 months.

The former mayor of Havre de Grace made it known that he intends to lead boldly, despite being the first county executive not to be voted into office by the electorate.

He was picked Tuesday on a 5-1 vote by the County Council to fill the remaining 16 months of the term of James M. Harkins, who left early to take a state job. Council President Robert S. Wagner voted against Craig, with Dion F. Guthrie, the council's only Democrat, abstaining. Their choice, Democrat Lucie L. Snodgrass, was denied the job by a 4-3 vote before the council voted on Craig.

Moments after being sworn into office, Craig pledged to cut government spending by 10 percent, impose a county government hiring freeze and work toward the removal of all portable classrooms. The spending cut would not apply to the school system or the sheriff's office.

He is already talking about pushing for a tax cut for next year. And he said some county employees not "doing their jobs" might be shown the door.

"I believe government has to be an agent for change and improvement," he said.

In an interview before his inauguration, Craig spoke about his goals as county executive.

They're not modest.

His top priority will be to evaluate the county's spending. He said he will ask all department heads to cut spending by 10 percent for at least 90 days, and possibly for the rest of the year. The cutback could save $6 million, using figures from the general government portion of the county budget.

"That way you can see if departments are keeping their costs where they need to be," Craig said. "The ultimate aim will be to try to roll back some of the taxes."

He said he would favor a property tax break over an income tax cut.

His next priority is education.

Craig worked 34 years in the Harford school system, first as a history and government teacher, then as an administrator. Much of his time was spent at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, once the county's most crowded school.

Craig wants to eliminate the county's 80-plus portable classrooms before the end of his tenure as executive.

"There's no excuse for any kid in Harford County to have to attend school in a portable classroom," Craig said.

He said crowding could be solved without building more schools, perhaps by expanding existing schools. The county also is expected to undertake countywide redistricting in preparation for the opening of the new Patterson Mill middle and high school complex in 2007.

Craig emphasized the importance of continuous dialogue among his administration, the school board and school Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas. Haas said she anticipates a strong working relationship with the new executive.

"There have been times where the communication [with Harkins] wasn't as good in the past," Haas said. "But we're in a good place right now."

Craig is the only Republican executive among Maryland counties with charter government. He is the second Republican executive in a county in which Democrats once outnumbered Republicans 2-1. Democrats only slightly outnumber Republicans today.

He said he believes in the Republican principles of responsible spending and smaller government.

"That said, school overcrowding is not a Republican or a Democrat issue," Craig said. "It's an issue of good government and good education.

"I think most of the issues that are going to confront anybody at the local level, county or city, are not really partisan issues. They're quality-of-life [issues]," he said.

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