Council set to enact new county budget

Rancor of past was avoided, members say

May 27, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The Harford County Council, with four freshmen members, expects to enact a nearly $1 billion budget Tuesday, the culmination of a process that has been devoid of the rancor that has marked previous efforts to balance revenues and expenditures.

Members credit an uncommon air of compromise between the council and the administration, founded in agreement on the fiscal challenges facing the county. They unanimously approved 99 amendments to the budget last week and have held the line on taxes, keeping the property tax rate at $1.082 per $100 of assessed value.

"A lot of what you saw in the amendments were compromises between [County Executive David R.] Craig and the council," said Council President Billy Boniface, one of the freshmen. "I can only cut his budget and make sure he follows what he's supposed to be doing. Would I do it the way he's doing it? No. Let's give him a shot and see if it works."

The council has pledged to send the approved document to the county executive this week.

"I have watched every council for 35 years and have not witnessed any that put aside partisanship so well," said Councilman James V. McMahan, a newcomer who represents District C. "There was a mindset to get along and get things done."

Any consternation was reserved for the county's State House delegation, whose members were repeatedly criticized by the council for a reluctance to help raise revenue. Council members said the delegation's refusal to increase the transfer tax on home settlements hampers efforts to raise money for school construction. The delegation declined to introduce a transfer tax bill this year.

"It is time our delegation gave us the revenue streams we need," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie. "We are not asking them to pass a tax, but to give us permission to."

Del. Barry Glassman, leader of the delegation, reminded the county of the $16 million the state has reimbursed Harford this year for the new Patterson Mill school complex.

"They are acting like sheep," Glassman, a former council member, said of the current council. "You feed them and an hour later, they are hungry. We can't keep up with their spending problems."

Boniface said he came into his first budget process "gung-ho to cut" but quickly realized the fiscal obligations the county must meet.

"If the average citizen sat down and looked at obligations and limitations, then they might have a different perspective," he said. "We're trying to keep things in check."

Although the council shied from saying it cut two projects described as critical, it significantly pared Craig's requests for a $40 million government administrative building and a $60 million expansion of a waste-to-energy facility.

Members said they expect both major projects to proceed. The budget lists $1 million for a feasibility study for the waste plant in Joppa and $2.5 million for a master plan that looks at space issues in all county buildings.

Council members have recommended pursuing alternative financing in the private sector for the projects rather than bonds.

"Everybody feels this is a perfect opportunity to look at alternative financing [for the projects]," Boniface said. "We just don't want to do the traditional bonding method and extend our debt service."

Officials said they are reluctant to further burden taxpayers with years of interest payments on costly projects. They are studying possibilities for private investment and lease-to-purchase arrangements.

"Debt-service reduction needs to be our priority," said Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, also elected last year along with the fourth of the freshman members, Chad R. Shrodes. "The only way to manage is a broader diversification of revenues. We have so many unfunded liabilities and huge capital needs."

Among the noteworthy amendments was one that raised by 1 percentage point the cost-of-living raise for teachers, to 4 percent. The budget also includes about $23 million in local money for school construction and renovation projects, which the county must fund to keep on target.

The state's cumbersome review process and its refusal to reimburse any privately funded ventures stymie local efforts to save on school construction costs, officials said.

"The state could give us the authority to outsource school construction," said Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith. "That would cut construction time in half and shave dollars off the construction costs."

Local officials will look for partial reimbursement from the state but are unsure whether that money will be available.

"Obviously, the state has pulled the plug," McMahan said. "We must step up to the plate and do this for our children."

A looming state deficit, possibly as much as $1.5 billion, will force the county to pick up more expenditures, Glassman said.

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky called for a realistic look at the financial future.

"We have to assume that we are going to accept the full burden for many of these projects," he said. "They are on our dime. Whatever we get back from the state in the future will be a bonus."

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