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Harford council to consider $100,000 loan for Kohl's e-commerce center

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A loan for Kohl's Department Stores is being considered by the Harford County Council to help the company to make improvements to its e-commerce distribution, or fulfillment, center in Edgewood.

The conditional loan from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development would provide the company with $400,000, and a loan from Harford County's Economic Development Opportunity Fund would provide $100,000, according to a resolution introduced before the council at its legislative session in Bel Air Tuesday night.

The resolution helps Kohl's acquire or build machinery, equipment, furnishings, fixtures, leasehold improvements, site improvements or infrastructure improvements at its "e-commerce fulfillment center" on Trimble Road.

The council did not act on the resolution Tuesday.

Benefits hearing

The council also held a public hearing with Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt and Human Resources Director Scott Gibson about proposed bills appropriating funds for the 2013 post-employment health plan and other post-employment benefits funds.

The proposed appropriations are $2,040,510 to the health plan and $9,442,537 to the other fund, and such funding is necessary under accounting principles governments are required to follow. The additional money is coming from unappropriated surpluses from prior budgets, according to the legislation.

Councilman Dick Slutzky asked if the trust fund related to the health plan would be interest-bearing and what the rate would be. Hewitt replied it would fluctuate.

The health plan appropriation also includes money going into a special pays account, listed as "personnel matters," that is distributed upon employee death or retirement.

Councilman Jim McMahan pointed out the "inordinate" number of deaths the county workforce experienced and asked if that was the reason for a shortfall in that fund.

Gibson agreed, noting the sudden deaths of two Harford County sheriff's deputies last year.

"To have two back-to-back was an inordinate expense," he said.

McMahan also asked if the county is "pretty much ahead of the curve," and Hewitt said it is.

She said Harford has funded 100 percent of the contribution each year, while other Maryland counties have not, which "keeps building their unfunded liability."

McMahan added: "We have been very frugal and put that money away in the past."

Hewitt also said: "The main benefit is to taxpayers of the future, that they won't be required to pay the retiree health care of people working today."

According to Gibson, the two accounts being funded by the legislation discussed by the council Tuesday are a "future liability" that cover medical insurance benefits costs for retired county employees. Those benefits are available to them for life, he said.

The smaller of the two "OPEB" accounts covers the costs put aside for employees hired after July 1, 2010, when the county switched from a defined benefit post-employment health care structure to a defined contribution structure, the latter where the county puts a specific amount of money aside per employee annually, similar to a 401(k) account contribution, Gibson explained Thursday. The employee can use the money in his or her account to purchase insurance once they retire, but the contributions are not tied to a specific percentage or cost threshold.

The larger of the two funds covers employees hired prior to July 1, 2010, who receive 85-90 percent of their annual health insurance premiums paid by the county, Gibson said.

Gibson also said the county has been funding the two OPEB accounts at this time of year by using unappropriated fund balance, rather than making the appropriation at the start of the fiscal year in July.

"They [auditors] have told us to determine what that liability is going to be," he said about the county's requirements. "It's just like a pension or a mortgage. You basically develop a payment plan."

"The county is making adequate progress on its payment plan. Just because we are up-to-date, doesn't mean the payments have to stop before the whole liability is paid off," he said.

With regard to the personnel matters account that is receiving an additional appropriation, Gibson said the account covers the payout of unused sick and personnel leave when an employee leaves, retires or dies while employed. In addition to the payout of unused leave, the county death benefit covers four weeks' pay, he said.

Counsel for network

Also at the meeting, the council unanimously approved funding of $5,500 that County Attorney Rob McCord said was needed to continue having outside legal counsel for a new 700 MHz project as part of the Central Maryland Area Radio Communications Group, which Harford is leading.

He said it is a continuation of an 800 MHz project the county has worked on since 2006 and would use the same attorney, Robert Gurss, of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC.

Because the project is under a different contract and is now funded by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council's grant money, it requires renewed approval, he said.

"I want to make sure the system can use the same frequencies, that everyone can communicate with everybody that's in the public safety field," he said.

New bills, soil conservation

The council introduced new bills that would approve a ground lease for the Humane Society of Harford County in Fallston and would approve the Sheriff's Office Pension Plan.

The Humane Society wants to terminate an agreement with the county from 1992 and enter into a ground lease for the Connolly Road site for a 20-year term, at a nominal rent of $1 per year.

Council President Billy Boniface also pointed out that Lee McDaniel, chairman of the Harford Soil Conservation District, was just elected president of the national version of the group.

"This is quite an achievement from Harford County, having someone elevated to this level," Boniface said. "It will give us a great deal of clout as we move forward with issues dealing with conservation."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti was not at Tuesday's meeting because her mother was very ill and in the hospital, Boniface said.

Walmart, executive appointments

Also at the council meeting, Bill Wehland spoke again about the proposed Bel Air Walmart, saying the store's opponents have found expansion possibilities are still possible.

He also said Walmart continues to not respond to residents despite getting "numerous letters" from people like him, although they did supposedly respond to the Planning and Zoning Department recently with comments.

"The fact is, most of the responses now are non-responsive and unacceptable," Wehland said, adding he would like to see a resolution passed or some change to the zoning code that caps the size or capacity of stores in certain districts.

"I will continue to fight Walmart," he said.

Ryan Burbey, head of the Harford County Education Association, criticized County Executive David Craig's comments during a budget hearing Monday that the county's education troubles are caused by state funding cuts.

"It's often been said the state is punishing us or whatever by not giving us," Burbey said. "I know the state on the county level is the whipping boy for virtually everything that goes wrong."

"In regard to education funding, Harford County really can't say that. Although we're losing over $4 million this year, seven out of the past 10 years, the state of Maryland has contributed more money to our schools than the county has," Burbey said.

The council announced a special session to address the sale of bonds at 2 p.m. this Tuesday.

Also at the meeting, the council appointed: Susan Bresuciak to the Commission for Women, Thomas Webber to the Social Services Advisory Board, Gary Scholl and Bonita Holland-Buchanan to the Human Relations Commission, Jay Ellerby to the Economic Development Advisory Board, Patricia Skebeck, Wendell Baxter and T. Joyce Jordan to the Citizens Nursing Home Board, and Michael Krantz and Matt Shiffermiller to the Harford Cable Network Board.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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