Harford leaders spar over budget

Clash over funds for Cabinet-level jobs reveals rift between county executive, council


A growing rift between Harford County Executive David R. Craig and the County Council widened this week after several new Cabinet-level positions were slashed from Craig's budget. Craig pledged to defy the council, which has accused him of bloating the executive ranks with little benefit to taxpayers.

"They will win the political battles on Tuesday night; they can get their two hours of fame," Craig said, referring to thrice-monthly council meetings. "But I know how to make the contract moves in the long run to get the job done."

The council and executive have squared off twice on key initiatives in recent months, but reaction to this week's clash exposed newfound tension as the council prepares to consider amendments to the proposed budget for next year. A previous disagreement over a countywide rezoning bill led Craig to veto the bill, leaving hundreds of property owners unable to move forward on development projects.

When former County Executive James M. Harkins stepped down to take a state job in July, some voiced concerns that his replacement would use the position as a springboard to re-election. After being sworn in, Craig, a Republican who made no secret his intention to run, pledged a hiring freeze and announced spending cuts that he said could lead to a property tax break.

Rather than a tax reduction, Craig's proposed budget for next year includes many sweeping, long-term initiatives that some officials say cannot be achieved without future tax increases.

"He's been very aggressive with some of the initiatives that he's taken on for someone who faces an election this fall and was appointed, not elected," said Council President Robert S. Wagner, a Republican, who strongly opposed the new Cabinet positions.

The council, two members short with one member deployed to Iraq and another being treated for leukemia, went on the offensive at a tense meeting Tuesday night on pay classification, rejecting the creation of nine new positions in Craig's proposed budget for next year.

The move infuriated administration officials, who argued that much of the funding for the new positions was being shifted from other departments. Six were existing positions that would be given new titles and brought on par with comparable county positions, at a cost of $90,000, they said.

"It's a slap at efficient government," Craig said. "We have hundreds of county vehicles and no one in charge. We have 450-plus properties that the county owns, and there's nobody efficiently managing them. We're not expanding bureaucracy - the county has grown."

A new position - that of a deputy chief of staff who would function as a liaison to the agriculture community - was also axed. Some farmers spoke in favor of the position, but Councilman Lance C. Miller said the desired results could be achieved without a $20,000 pay raise.

"Lance has to figure out what he's for," Craig retorted, a reference to Miller's stated intention to vote against the county budget for the sixth time in eight years.

The council will make amendments to the budget next week, and Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat, said the council will be looking to see where the administration plans to find the money for many of its initiatives.

"[The budget] is inflated well above any budget we've ever had, and we want to take a step back," he said.


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