Harford County budget process more complicated than it looks

January 29, 2013|Editorial from The Aegis

The average citizen could be forgiven for failing to understand the way taxpayer money gets spent at the state and county level. It's as complex as a spider web, and about as easy to get tangled in.

As of this week, Harford County Executive David R. Craig was getting ready to put together a spending plan for the year that begins July 1 (not Jan. 1, as the year does for most of us). His initial citizens input meeting was supposed to have been Monday, but that was delayed because of the weather. It is at that meeting where people speak up in favor of what projects they'd like to see funded by the county. Generally, the argument for just about everything presented is, "If we can afford this [large sum] to pay for this mundane program, we can certainly afford this [fraction of the aforementioned large sum] to pay for this exciting program." Often this seemingly foolproof logic carries the day, even in economic bad times. Thus, government spending at the county level grows, not by leaps and bounds, but by dozens upon dozens of small increments. It's pretty safe to extrapolate that's exactly how state and federal budgets grow as well.

Another step in the process already taken was the drafting by the Harford County Board of Education of a budget request, which this year totals $442.9 million for general operations (not counting construction projects, which is a further complicating factor). Though this is a budget request, the school system, like most school systems, will generally refer to this as the budget, and anything less will be referred to as a budget cut, even though the school system will end up receiving more money in the fiscal year ahead than it received in the current one.

The county is responsible to pay for roughly half of the school system's budget and, in turn, very roughly half of what the county spends in a year goes to the school system. The balance of the school system's money comes from the state government. The balance of the county's spending is for police, road work, parks and recreation, planning and zoning and any one of a number of other items. Not included in this package is the cost of running the water and sewer systems, which must be self-sufficient based on water and sewer fees charged to customers.

Confused yet?

With the school system request and the information from the public input sessions in hand, the executive's office will add in requests from the various department heads, ranging from the sheriff to the department of parks and recreation, and put together a spending plan. That goes to the county council which will hold a series of day-long review sessions in April that are open to the public. There will also be two or more public hearings on the budget itself. The council will be able to cut, add to or move money allocated in about half of the executive's plan, the half not related to the school system. The schools allocation cannot be cut by the county council, though the county council can add to it.

As the county budget is obliged to be balanced, any changes the council makes need to be revenue neutral, or flat out cuts.

The state requires that each county enact a budget plan in May or early June for the spending year ahead, complete with the various tax rates that will be needed to make the numbers balance, and the books close on the current spending year effective June 30.

Anyone who wants to have an effect on the county's spending plans — for the purpose of increasing spending on schools or cutting tax bills or anything else — would do well to become at least a little bit familiar with the process.

Anyone who takes the time to do so will quickly come to understand that the aforementioned is just the short version.

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