He has a reputation for being as disciplined with taxpayers' money as he is in his healthy diet and gym routine. All seem to agree that when it comes to knowledge of Baltimore County government, Fred Homan has no peer.
Now that the longtime county budget director is about to take responsibility for the government's day-to-day operation, some joke that the only thing that will change is his job title, since he is already seen by many as the man who calls a lot of the shots.
"Fred has his finger on every part of the county [government]," said County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. "His influence has grown every day."
Homan, 53, was appointed county administrative officer last week by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. The 28-year veteran of county government will replace Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire this week after almost four years in the job.
As administrative officer - a job he has held on two previous occasions on an interim basis - Homan will have duties similar to those of a city manager. He will be directly responsible for all departments, about 8,000 employees and a $1.59 billion budget.
His appointment is subject to confirmation by the County Council.
Government officials credit Homan as the driving force behind the county's AAA bond rating. They say his providence is the main reason the county is ahead of others in setting aside millions of dollars to cover the benefits of future retirees, potentially heading off huge deficits.
"I would suspect that at this point in his career, he is considered probably one of the best budget directors in local or state government throughout the country," said former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, who named Homan budget chief in 1989.
Some say Homan can be an unreasonable penny-pincher, too quick to say no to projects that would benefit the community and government agencies. And his reputation for holding employees accountable has inspired fear, observers say.
"Fred is not going to win the Collegiality Award of the Year by the rest of the county employees," Kamenetz said. "But that's not his job. His job is to make difficult decisions and to manage our county, and he's done both of those very well."
Homan, who makes $154,000 a year, is described by colleagues as a hard-working, no-nonsense guy. His car is often one of the last to leave the parking lot, county officials say.
He does not seek attention for himself. He was out of town shortly after being appointed to his new position, and was unavailable to comment for this article, said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith.
Homan, who is married and has two children, was overweight years ago before committing himself to getting in shape, colleagues say. He works out religiously and closely watches what he eats, keeping a box of organic cereal at his desk for snacks.
He is also quick to speak his mind. When a local newspaper this year said local governments had become too big, Homan wrote a letter to the editor saying that the number of Baltimore County employees had shrunk.
Homan's philosophy has been to spend budget surpluses on one-time projects, such as school construction, rather than committing them to long-term expenses.
Mohler said Homan never shies away from tough decisions, such as turning down funding requests from government departments.
As budget director, Homan has inevitably "become the symbol of a fiscally conservative government," Mohler said. "There are people who are always going to be taking shots at you. Fred has the ability to never take that personally."
Councilman Vincent J. Gardina has taken some of those shots, calling Homan "myopic." Recently, he blamed Homan for a plan to put a school bus parking lot behind a new library planned for Perry Hall. Some residents have opposed the bus depot, but Gardina said the county has been reluctant to seek alternatives sites because of the cost.
"He's so budget-oriented that when he makes decisions, he bases everything on efficiency and fiscal impact," said Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "And you need to balance other things."
Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist, said she disagreed with Homan when he made a presentation to residents several years ago justifying the razing of an old elementary school, a plan that was opposed by some residents.
She said she is concerned that Homan - who will continue as budget director at least through May - has gained too much power in the administration.
"When I am asking my elected officials about an issue, and when I am told, `Mr. Homan would not like that,' I have a concern," Spicer said. "Mr. Homan is an appointed person, not an elected official. I have no control over who gets appointed. I do have control over who gets elected."
Smith, a Democrat entering his second term, said Homan is one of several key advisers.
Michael K. Day Sr., president of the Baltimore County branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Homan has tremendous influence.
"There's three things that make up power: access to capital, access to institutional knowledge and access to information," he said, adding that as budget director with decades of experience and computer technology, Homan has all three. "Fred basically has the best interest of the taxpayers at heart," he said.