Different disasters

November 15, 2011

It turns out the Harford County government has met the Federal Emergency Management Agency's threshold of $800,851.02 spent in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee to qualify for federal disaster aid.

It's an odd number, but no one ever said federal funding formulas weren't odd.

Another thing that's a bit odd, though, is how much difference county officials seem to believe this amount of money will make when it comes to Harford County's budget for the current spending year.

In recent years, the county's budget has been largely flat, in the $400 million to $500 million range. For those keeping track, $800,000 amounts to 0.2 percent of the total. Even a federal payment to the county in the range of 10 times that total, or $8 million, would rise only to the range of 2 percent of the county's total budget.

This is not to say the county should turn down federal disaster money. We in Harford County pay federal taxes and are as entitled to assistance as anyone else when disaster strikes.

What is strange about the prospect of federal disaster money is one expressed last week by one county official, but a sentiment that has been oft repeated by local officials lately: "budgets are tight."

Indeed, budgets are tight all around, both for governments and those of us who pay taxes to the governments, and every little bit helps, be it 0.2 percent more, 2 percent more or 20 percent more.

One number that is quite telling as to why budgets are tight was noted in another story last week in this newspaper: 17 percent. That's the amount, on average, by which housing values are down in Harford County. The good news is it's better than the national average. But it's still bad news.

And that bad news is compounded by the reality that, had county officials been more judicious in their spending during the housing bubble that jacked up home values and real estate tax bills, we'd all be better off.

While it may well be bad form to issue an "I told you so" editorial at this juncture, there were warnings expressed on this page that were summarily dismissed. Fortunately there is reason to be confident the economic bad times upon us will fade, hopefully sooner than later. One thing that hopefully won't fade anytime soon, though, is the lesson of increasing spending when tax revenue increases at a rate that outstrips inflation. As we have seen, that is the kind of public policy that leads to disaster, and not the kind FEMA can help pay for.

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