County outlines cuts

5 percent trim won't affect services to average resident, Harford officials contend

November 02, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,

Faced with declining revenues and a sluggish economy, county officials have cut nearly $13 million from this year's operating budget. Every agency and department has trimmed costs by at least 5 percent, while county officials have assured residents they will not experience any reduction in services.

Projects, such as school and road construction that are already in the works, will continue to move forward, officials said.

"The average citizen won't see any cut in services," said County Executive David R. Craig after a news conference last week to announce reductions in the fiscal year 2009 budget, which began July 1.

The school board cut $5.3 million, the largest single reduction. The decrease could have been as much as $10.5 million had the county not allowed education an exemption from the 5 percent rule, said Jacqueline C. Haas, schools superintendent.

"We cut back on our technology budget, reduced professional and curriculum development, cell-phone use and all out-of-state travel," Haas said. "Every department stepped up to think creatively about these cuts."

Craig opened the news conference with some light banter, but the mood quickly turned somber as he provided details of the cost savings that will take place immediately. While no layoffs are planned, 33 vacancies will not be filled, he said.

He has also reduced funds for temporary positions and overtime. Newly established personnel review and expenditure oversight committees will determine which positions have to be filled and what items must be purchased this year.

Libraries will likely reduce hours to save $500,000. Some county buildings will not be open during the evening. Employee travel, meals and professional training will be curtailed.

"We had a breakfast meeting two weeks ago to discuss cuts," Craig said. "I told staff then that was the last breakfast."

The sheriff's department cut $1.6 million and will not replace 17 vehicles in its fleet, nor will video cameras be installed in several cruisers this year. The department, nearly at full staff, has also temporarily suspended recruitment, said Sheriff L. Jesse Bane.

"We are a lean, mean machine now, but absolutely nothing we have done adversely impacts the services we provide," Bane said. "Public safety is not at risk."

In fact, Bane has told Craig that he might have to reconsider some cuts should the need arise. While the sheriff has asked his managers to review overtime, he has not eliminated the extra pay needed for crime-fighting initiatives.

"We will not sacrifice public safety to save a couple of dollars," Bane said. "We have a safe county and won't let that slip."

Increased enrollment has helped Harford Community College avoid cuts to its staffing, said President James F. LaCalle. A third of the college's revenue comes from tuition, and a 4.2 percent increase in its student body should help the school address the economic impact, he said. It was able to return $830,000 from its budget and still move forward with plans to build a 3,300-seat arena next year.

The downturn in the housing industry has affected the county's revenues, particularly money derived from the transfer and recording taxes assessed on home sales, officials said. State contributions to county coffers will be considerably less this year and next, officials said.

Craig said the county will meet the demands of BRAC, the military expansion that will bring an additional 10,000 jobs in the next few years to Aberdeen Proving Ground, the county's largest employer. Work on schools, roads and other infrastructure is moving forward, he said.

"We will be ready for BRAC," Craig said. "I don't believe the state will be ready."

He also criticized state efforts to save money by proposed cutbacks in mass transit, some of which he said will be critical to moving BRAC workers to their jobs.

"Just when people are turning to mass transit is not the time to take it away," he said.

While the economy has shown no signs of improving, Craig said he will take a wait-and-see attitude before calling for more cuts. He has not considered decreases in the county's contributions to Harford's three municipalities.

It will be February before the state makes its income and revenue projections, which might force another round of budget trimming, he said.

"It is easier to cut now," he said. "These cuts will lead us through the immediate crisis and potentially help us in the long-term crisis. In the meantime, we are watching revenues and expenditures."

He ended the news conference on a note of optimism.

"This too shall pass," he said. "We will work our way through it."

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