Hopeful sharpens attack

Democratic executive candidate to air ads

rival calls them misleading

Maryland Votes 2006

October 15, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,[Sun reporter]

Seeking to sharpen the focus on County Executive David R. Craig's record, Democratic challenger Ann C. Helton will begin airing TV ads this week that criticize Craig for raising taxes in Havre de Grace during his tenure as mayor.

The ad is Helton's third to air on local cable channels and the first that takes direct aim at Craig, a Republican who was appointed to his post in July 2005 after a quarter-century in local elected office. The ad features Dolly Mason, a resident of Havre de Grace for 75 years, chiding Craig for raising property taxes.

Craig "promised to hold the line on taxes," Mason says, according to a script provided to The Sun. "But he raised property taxes, not once but twice, to the highest rate in Harford County."

Craig, who served two stints as mayor, characterized the spot as misleading, saying it neglects the city's financial woes at the time and the tax reductions that followed once the problems were under control. The 16 percent increase in 2004 could be offset in coming years because of a surplus, he said.

"The reality is, Havre de Grace has been the only jurisdiction [in Harford] that's been able to lower taxes," said Craig.

Tracy Conaway, Havre de Grace's deputy director of finance, said the tax rate rose from 62 cents per $100 of assessed value to 72 cents. And though the rate has dropped each year since, it hasn't returned to the pre-2004 level. This year, the tax rate is 68 cents.

Craig acknowledges two property tax increases on his watch but points out that the first occurred more than 20 years ago, during his first stint as mayor. And he has never lost an election in Havre de Grace, he points out.

Helton argues that the fluctuations point to poor fiscal management.

"What I think is a very telling part of his record is how he handles the public's money, and I haven't seen much to suggest that he does that very well," she said.

Helton has spent $40,000 on TV ads that have aired on Comcast and Clearview channels. The previous two spots focused on development and land preservation. A recurring theme of Helton's campaign has been the influence of developers and her efforts to preserve Kilgore Falls at Rocks State Park.

Helton, 67, is trying to become the first Democratic county executive since Eileen Rehrmann, who served two terms from 1990 to 1998. Since then, the position has been held by Republicans, establishing a clear advantage for Craig, who also has a fundraising edge.

Craig, 57, has largely focused on his work since being appointed county executive last summer, including numerous pledges to provide funding to schools and public safety. An event this week will highlight his commitment to the sheriff's office.

This is not the first time Craig has faced scrutiny over his record. In the 1998 Republican primary, fellow state legislator James M. Harkins labeled Craig as "pro-growth," a label some political observers say he is still trying to shake.

In the current campaign, Craig says Helton lacks a record to scrutinize. She has served one term in elected office, on the Anne Arundel County Council in the mid-1970s.

"She says she has a plan, but we have gotten results," Craig said during an appearance on Channel 2 this week. "We have a track record of 15 months, and that's the biggest difference."

Helton brought up Craig's tenure in Havre de Grace previously. A faux newspaper produced and disseminated by the campaign includes an article titled "Craig's Reign of Misrule: First Havre de Grace, Now Harford."

The article says Craig boosted Havre de Grace property taxes to the highest rate in the county and that he spent down the city's "`rainy day' fund to practically nothing."

Mason, the longtime resident, is featured on the next page making a similar claim.

Craig said Mason has a grudge against him and has been "sucked in" to Helton's campaign.

In public appearances, the candidates have been cordial, but Craig has been irked by Helton's criticism.

"Either Ann doesn't understand how to run a government, which makes her incapable of being county executive, or she is lying, which means she's also incapable of being county executive," he said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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