Craig signs $900 million budget

9 percent pay raises for county workers included in plan

June 01, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

After months of debate, Harford County's nearly $900 million budget for 2009 is official.

Starting July 1, the county's 1,200 employees will receive a 9 percent pay raise. The Sheriff's Department can hire 10 new deputies, and the Board of Education will embark on school construction projects costing $122 million, the most aggressive building plan of any county administration, officials said.

Plans for the library in Churchville, the Fallston Recreation and Senior Center and the Cedar Lane Recreation Complex will move forward. The sheriff will break ground for a southern precinct on Route 40, and his department will have an additional $100,000 to fight gangs.

The county will accomplish those projects and many others, without an increase in property taxes and with a 1 percent decrease in the Homestead Tax Credit, which also takes effect July 1. The 9 percent credit caps the amount of property tax an owner must pay by limiting the annual increase in taxable assessments, which have been rising by as much as 40 percent every three years.

"It means more money in property owners' pockets and about $3 million less in county revenues," said Council President Billy Boniface.

The prolonged budget process that included workshops, public hearings and nearly 200 amendments to an already voluminous document ended with the official signing at the county offices Thursday.

"The budget is a long, tiring process that determines how we spend nearly $1 billion over the next year," said County Executive David R. Craig.

He stressed the importance of the work that "sets the direction we take for the next year." He applauded the enactment of the pay increase, which he called "fair and equitable," and several other initiatives to improve workers' quality of life.

Although the council agreed employees deserved the raise, approving a pay increase in a sluggish economy was a difficult decision that required putting other initiatives on hold, Boniface said.

"This budget was tougher for us, with all of us concerned with the economy and future revenues," Boniface said of the second budget process of his tenure.

The council also trimmed to $2 million the $20 million Craig had requested for land acquisition funds that would be used to purchase property for public projects, particularly schools.

"Just because we cut back does not mean we don't support land banking," Boniface said. "But before we move forward, we would like a more open process with specifics of what the money will be used for. Large purchases have to be an open public process."

Craig said that he could live with the reduced funds for the next year but reminded the council that the county will soon have to find land for a new middle school in the Bel Air area, where available parcels are scarce and competition and prices are high.

"Hopefully, we will have the money in hand to negotiate with the seller," said Craig, who listed all the recent projects that needed quick decisions on land purchases. "I doubt that $2 million would be enough to buy any one of those. We need flexibility. Now is a good time to buy, before land goes back into the private sector."

The council has spent the past two months meeting with county agencies and holding public hearings on various spending proposals. Craig made an unannounced appearance late Tuesday, shortly before the final vote on the budget. He added that he was not surprised when the council unanimously approved the budget without comment.

"They were worn down," he said.

At the signing, Craig and Boniface, who were at odds over a few budget issues, bantered amicably and thanked one another for the successful outcome. Craig said he received 99 percent of what he asked for, and Boniface said he would be willing to revisit the contentious issues.

Within a few months, the process will begin anew. Craig told his department heads to work within their means last year and expects to deliver the same message this September.

"I told them to be conservative last year, and I expect to tell them to be more conservative next year," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.