Drastic budget cuts due

County agencies are warned revenue can't match their requests

February 25, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Harford County budget officials warned agencies last week that drastic cuts could be made in their proposed budgets with requests far outpacing revenues, though County Executive David R. Craig signaled good news for the sheriff's office.

Administrative Director Lorraine T. Costello and Treasurer John R. Scotten Jr. said that budget proposals for fiscal 2008 are nearly triple the amount of available cash the county could hand out. In all, agencies are asking Craig for increases totaling about $90 million, while there is only about $30 million available in new revenue.

The deepest cuts might have to come from the school board, which is seeking its second-largest single-year increase. The county's contribution to the school budget would climb more than $30 million to $220 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 under a proposal adopted by the system, funding 100 new teachers, salary increases and improvements to special education.

The board's budget represents half of the county's general fund expenditures.

During his State of the County address last week, Craig made few budget pledges. But he did commit to a new pay plan for the Harford County Sheriff's Office and said he would enable the hiring of 60 new law enforcement deputies over the next four years.

The pay plan and new deputies are two of the largest expenditures in Sheriff L. Jesse Bane's proposed budget, which would increase by $10 million over last year's $51.5 million.

Union officials are especially pleased with Craig's support of the new pay plan, which they said would help bring them closer to the average of salaries in the region and attract experienced hires from other jurisdictions.

"It's not a done deal yet, but it'd be a significant attempt to get really good guys with experience that want to lateral over," said Deputy Fred Visnaw, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union. "For the first time, we'd be near the average of the big boys."

Some of the new deputies would become part of a newly formed juvenile services unit, one of the major planks of Bane's platform. Others could join the agency's tiny traffic unit - which has just three deputies - or beef up the number of detectives.

The budget spike would be a one-year jump of 20 percent, outpacing the 16 percent increase adopted last year by the agency. But Craig's comments gave officials reason for optimism.

"There's been every indication they will give me whatever they possibly can," Bane said. "We'll be limited by how much revenue is available, but the county executive and County Council are in tune that we need to pay attention to public safety."

More than 65 additional deputies also will be needed in the coming years just to staff the Harford County Detention Center, which is slated to undergo a $25 million expansion. Six new corrections deputies appear in Bane's proposed budget for this year.

Craig, a Republican, has been mum on his plans for the school system, which was fully funded for the first time in its history two years ago under then-County Executive James M. Harkins. While school construction has been a major part of Craig's year-and-a-half in office, there has been less talk about the system's operating budget.

Craig could see some of his own priorities shelved as the budget process plows forward. He is pushing a host of capital projects - from a new administration building to a new sheriff's precinct in Edgewood to a half-dozen school projects - that council members fear could damage the county's bond rating.

Schools officials say the 12 percent increase in their proposed budget, which includes $195 million from the state, would pay for the opening of the new Patterson Mill high and middle school complex, hiring more than 100 teachers and offsetting the spiraling costs of special education.

Some components that could receive a hard look include salary and benefit increases, which account for nearly $17.5 million of the proposal. To stay competitive with surrounding jurisdictions, the county must augment teacher salaries, said Budget Director James Jewell.

Craig has noted in recent speeches that teacher salaries last year jumped from 23rd in the state to 12th, a possible indication of his reluctance to make another significant boost.

The school system also is asking for 109 new positions to improve and enhance the system at a cost of $8.5 million.

Scotten, the county treasurer, said he expects "decent" growth of about 10 percent in property tax receipts. Income tax revenue increases will likely be less than in recent years, he said, at about 4 percent. Craig's proposed budget will be sent to the County Council on March 30, and the council can only cut, not add to, his plan.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

BUDGET DECISIONS

As County Executive David R. Craig readies a budget proposal to submit to the County Council, he will have to significantly pare back budget requests from departments and agencies:

Departments have requested about $90 million in additional money, but budget officials expect only $30 million in new revenue.

The school board is seeking a $30 million increase from the county for more than 100 new teachers, salary increases and improvements to special education.

The sheriff's office wants $10 million more for a new pay plan, more deputies and pension costs.

Treasurer John R. Scotten Jr. sees "decent" growth in property tax revenue this year but only slightly more in income taxes.

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