Harford council rejects plan to substitute raises for new library building

Members of the Harford County Council have defeated a move that might have cut funding for a new library building in Havre de Grace to make money available to give raises to government employees.

As they wrapped up their review of the proposed 2015 operating and capital budgets, council members approved a slew of the 43 amendments proposed to both budgets Tuesday night in a session more noteworthy for was rejected.

In addition to defeating the amendment to strike $7.1 million for construction of the new Havre de Grace library building, the council also killed a series of amendments that would have made more funding available for the Havre de Grace High School replacement project, which is just beginning the design phase.

The 2015 capital and operating budgets, as proposed by County Executive David Craig last month, are $626.9 million and $107.8 million, respectively, but those totals will change to reflect some of the amendments approved Tuesday. The final vote on the new budget is scheduled for May 28.

The projected new grand totals were not available Wednesday and could continue to change if additional amendments should be offered and approved prior to the budget's final passage; however, Council President Billy Boniface said Wednesday he is not anticipating any last-minute changes.

As it stands, the county property tax rates will remain unchanged at $1.042 per $100 of assessed value outside municipal areas and $0.896 per $100 assessed value within the borders of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace. The local income tax rate of 3.06 percent also will not change.

Raise proposal fizzles

The amendment introduced by Councilman Dion Guthrie to remove the $7.1 million budgeted for replacing the Harford County Public Library's Havre de Grace branch failed 5-1, with only Guthrie voting for it.

Guthrie said the existing Havre de Grace branch is "a perfectly good library," and suggested delaying funding a replacement for at least a year in order to give county employees a pay increase, instead.

Since 2009, county employees, including sheriff's deputies, jail guards and library personnel received one raise, 4 percent, in the fiscal 2013 budget. Their pay did not change in the current budget, and no raise was proposed by the county executive in the new one. In addition, employees received a pay cut when they were furloughed five days in 2010.

"We have to stop thinking about brick and mortar all the time and start thinking about people," Guthrie said.

Guthrie said distinctions between capital funds and operating funds, the latter which are used for employee salaries, are lost on taxpayers and county employees who have gone without raises for many years.

But Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents the Havre de Grace area, noted that the county is barred "by law" from shifting money from the capital budget to the operating budget.

Councilman Chad Shrodes abstained from voting because his wife Amber is director of the Harford County Public Library Foundation.

Council Attorney Melissa Lambert gave Council President Billy Boniface, who is a non-voting member of the library's Board of Trustees, clearance to vote on the amendment, but recommended Shrodes abstain, after Guthrie made a "point of order" about their connection to the library system.

Havre de Grace High

Once the dust settled from a lively debate among Boniface, Councilwoman Lisanti and Guthrie, with additional comments from Board of Education member Tom Fitzpatrick, the Havre de Grace High School replacement project ended up with the same $4.9 million that had been approved in the current budget for design services, not with an additional $5 million as proposed in one of the defeated amendments.

The debate started when the council voted 6-1 against the 19th of the 43 amendments – Lisanti cast the only "yes" vote – which would have allowed the Harford County Board of Education to use "prior appropriated funds" for construction projects, including the replacement of Havre de Grace High School and Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston and extensive upgrades to Joppatowne High School.

Lisanti noted the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction had not given the county the go-ahead to proceed with the Joppatowne project but had given its blessing to the Havre de Grace and Youth's Benefit projects earlier this year.

Next to be rejected was amendment No. 22 that would have taken $5.05 million from the Joppatowne High project and put it toward Havre de Grace High. It also failed 6-1, with Lisanti casting the only "yes" vote. Craig's administration was listed as a co-sponsor

Amendment 23, which took away the $5.05 million from Joppatowne High, was made invalid by the failure of amendment 19, Boniface noted.

"We are basically on the verge of contracting with our engineering services for the Havre de Grace project, and we would like to move forward with the construction management piece," Fitzpatrick, who represents the Havre de Grace area on the school board, told the council before the vote.

"We would like to see that money moved to Havre de Grace, so we can move forward with things like geotechnical services and construction document preparation," he said.

Guthrie, whose district includes Joppatowne High, strenuously objected to amendments 22 and 23.

"I don't think you should take money form one school to finance another school, regardless of what step they're in," Guthrie said, referring to the state's approval process. He called the idea of bringing such an amendment to the council "horrific."

Lisanti agreed with Guthrie to a point.

"It is my belief that all schools in our public school system should have a baseline of resources that are available to them," she said.

She also said, however, that "in a long-term budgeting process there's a partnership" between the county and the state.

Guthrie reminded Fitzpatrick that they are both running to be elected to their respective seats – Guthrie is seeking re-election, and Fitzpatrick, an appointee, is making his first run to represent the Havre de Grace area on the school board.

Guthrie said he did not expect to see funding for Joppatowne High within his next four-year term if he is re-elected.

Fitzpatrick noted "it has been the [school] board's wish to support the Joppatowne project."

"I pledge my support to the other school, and I intend to continue that support, hopefully after the election," he said.

"I don't want to group them all together," Boniface said of the school projects, while later discussing two other amendments, Nos. 41 and 42, that he had introduced to allow the planning process for Havre de Grace and construction for Youth's Benefit, respectively, to proceed with funds the council had approved in the 2014 budget. The funds will be available July 1, according to the amendments.

"I did these amendments recognizing amendment No. 19 might be in trouble, and so that we could free this money up with what we put in," he explained. Both passed unanimously.

"These two amendments will resolve the issue for Havre de Grace and what approval they have had to this point," Boniface said.

Other amendments

The majority of the other amendments passed unanimously with little discussion Tuesday.

Highlights included $200,000 toward technology upgrades for Fountain Green Elementary School in Bel Air, $1.09 million in county and state funds toward HVAC improvements at Ring Factory Elementary School, $10,000 for new storm windows for the Liriodendron Mansion in Bel Air and a $100,000 increase in funds for technology improvements at Hickory Elementary School.

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