Struggling to maintain services without tax increase, Bel Air passes budget for FY18

The Town of Bel Air covers a three-mile radius and has a population of about 10,000, but the greater Bel Air area – which runs several miles farther in all directions from the town center – has a population of 130,000, the town's mayor often says.

Even if they don't live in town, all those people use town services, whether eating at restaurants, shopping in stores or attending one of the many events the town hosts all year long, Mayor Susan Burdette said.

The mayor made those comments as she and her colleagues on the Board of Town Commissioners unanimously approved a nearly $13 million operating budget for fiscal 2018 earlier this week.

The town has to pay to accommodate all those extra people, whether it's police officers patrolling the special events, or public works employees working on a weekend monitoring trash or setting up and breaking down after a festival, the mayor noted.

"It's wonderful all these people are coming here, but it will get harder and harder to sponsor those [events]," Burdette said.

Fortunately, she said, the town has more than 1,000 volunteers who make it possible to put on such events and keep things running smoothly, the mayor noted.

The town's police and public works departments also have employees who know how to staff such events and have plans for handling an influx of people, whether it be for a special event or a regular Friday night in Harford County's largest bar district, Burdette said.

The new $12,947,776 operating budget (a decrease of $174,342 from last year) does not include an increase in the town's real property tax rate, which will remain at 50 cents per $100 of assessed value, but it does include an increase in sewer rates. The new budget includes merit increases and a 1 percent cost of living adjustment for town employees.

The commissioners and town staff lamented at their meeting Monday that it's getting more and more difficult to maintain the same level of services.

"This was one of the most difficult budgets I have ever had to work on," Town Administrator Jesse Bane said. "I am concerned for the future."

This was the third budget Bane, who was a Harford County sheriff for eight years and deputy deputy for 34 years before that, has prepared as Bel Air's town administrator.

"We are making every effort to make sure we do not cut services so Bel Air stays the town everyone wants to live in," he said.

It wasn't that long ago, he said, that Bel Air's property tax rate was 80 cents per $100 of assessed value, 30 cents more than today's rate. Tax cuts and the flat housing market since the crash of 2008 have limited revenue growth, however.

"We want to live within our means as much as possible," Bane said.

Commissioner Robert Preston thanked Bane and the town department heads for providing a budget that maintains the tax rate, but said each year the town is trying to do more with less.

"My commitment to the people of Bel Air — we try to maintain services, which I believe are top notch, and do it for the least amount of money," Preston said.

Commissioner Patrick Richards said he continues to be impressed by the department heads, who work with "flexibility, creativity and proactivity" as they prepare the next year's budget.

"It gets tougher and tougher each year to get over the hump, but we do," Richards said.

"We welcome reasonable, thoughtful input for future budgets," he said.

Commissioner Brendan Hopkins said he is concerned the budget does not include any capital money for the police department.

"The police department is very outdated," Hopkins, a former sheriff's deputy, said. "It really needs to be redone. We need to start somewhere."

The police department is in the basement of Town Hall, which is small, almost 53 years old and has been the subject of much talk about being replaced. Nothing has been done about that yet.

Hopkins also said he's concerned about the police department's school resource officer, who covers significantly more schools than the SROs in Aberdeen and Havre de Grace. In those two municipalities, Aberdeen assigns two two SROs and Havre de Grace funds four, one for each school within the city limits.

"It is a concern because our kids are our greatest asset in town," Hopkins said.

Before approving the budget, the commissioners held a public hearing on the sewer fund, parking fund and special revenue fund, which operate independently.

The sewer fund is increasing by $43,356 to $2,518,617. Sewer rates in FY18 will be going up 1.3 percent, town finance director Lisa Moody told the commissioners, from $5.91 to $5.99 per $100 of assessed value.

On the expense side, $1.6 million is budgeted as a payment to Harford County to transport and treat Bel Air's sewage. No major sewer projects are planned in the coming fiscal year.

The parking fund in FY18 is increasing by $189,187 to $842,123. Revenue comes from meter collections and parking fines ($110,446) and lease fees from the town's three lots and garage ($65,640), Moody told the commissioners.

Among the expenses in the parking fund are reimbursement to the general fund ($171,926) for depreciation costs and fees for a vendor to process parking tickets; and $330,990 in capital work, including electrical conduits, signs and energy upgrades at the parking garage.

At the town meeting, Aravinda Pillalamarri asked the commissioners if the gazebo, being built at Rockfield Manor with public funds, will be accessible to the public.

The gazebo will replace a structure that recently "started to fail," according to Town Planning Director Kevin Small. To the right of the manor house when looking at it from Route 22, it will be surrounded by horticulture gardens and will be open to the public, he said.

Bond sale OK

The commissioners approved a resolution to sell $400,000 in general obligation bonds to pay for sanitary sewer rehabilitation projects.

The financing, at a rate of 2.58 percent, will be through PNC Bank, Moody said. Settlement is scheduled for June 5.

Contracts for two of the projects covered by the bond sale were approved by the commissioners Monday.

A contract for $47,000 was awarded to Civil Utility Construction Co. for repair of a 300-foot section of a non-invasive sewer pipe along George Street between Reed Street and Atwood Road.

The damaged pipe will be cleaned and repaired and a new pipe pulled through without having to dig up the road, Public Works Director Steve Kline told the commissioners.

Another contract, not to exceed $70,000, was awarded to Diversified Infrastructure Services to do a video inspection and cleaning of pipes and manholes in Howard Park, on Main Street and in Hickory Village.

The sewers in town are deteriorating, Kline said, but by doing these inspections it is possible to keep ahead of potential problems before they become serious issues.

"We are in great shape with our sanitary sewer system for a town of its age," Kline said. "It think it will carry us through for generations to come."

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