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Harford council passes fiscal 2019 budget, rejects amendment to defund ag preservation program

The Harford County Council approved the county’s fiscal 2019 capital and operating budgets Tuesday night, after rejecting an amendment that would defund the county’s agricultural preservation program.

An amended ordinance setting a $734.6 million operating budget and $166.1 million capital budget was approved 6-1.

Councilman Mike Perrone, who unsuccessfully tried to defund the ag preservation program, cast the only vote against the final budget, which takes effect July 1.

Although subjected to more than 50 amendments that were approved by the council Tuesday, the final budget differs little from what County Executive Barry Glassman submitted to the council in mid-April.

Glassman signed the new budget into law Wednesday afternoon, adminstration spokesperson Cindy Mumby said.

Most of the budget’s amendments dealt with minor changes in appropriations, or anticipated revenue that also required a series of rebalancing amendments to final revenue and appropriations totals, according to Director of Administration Billy Boniface.

The budget includes funding for salary increases for county employees, as well as for those with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, public schools and public libraries; funding for a 24-hour crisis center for people with mental health and addiction issues; increased funding for volunteer fire companies; continued funding for a county-run EMS operation; and money for school safety upgrades and to expand the number of school resource officers.

Most employees of the county government will receive a 2 percent cost of living increase and a $2,000 merit based increase, according to the county executive, as will law enforcement personnel. School officials will have the final say on what their employees get, as also determined by their union contracts; however, Glassman said last month he provided enough funding in the school system’s instructional salaries categories for teachers to receive a raise commensurate with the 4 percent county employees are receiving.

Additional funding for school resource officers will permit the deployment of one in each middle school, in addition to high schools which already have them. Glassman and Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler have said they will study the feasibility of also putting resource officers in elementary schools, primarily a cost and funding question.

The planned crisis center, which is expected to open this summer, will be a joint undertaking of the county government, the health department and the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, using funds from both the public and nonprofit sectors. The county is initially providing $250,000.

The first phase will include a crisis hot-line with mobile crisis units and an outpatient mental health clinic with scheduled urgent appointments 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Upper Chesapeake Health’s president and CEO, Lyle Sheldon, said last week. The center will be in Bel Air; officials have not yet disclosed the actual location, which they say will be in a privately owned, leased building.

The 24/7 walk-in urgent care clinic is planned to open at the center in the fall, when representatives from the community nonprofit partners will also move into the center.

Ag preservation controversy

Perrone touched off a controversy a week earlier when he introduced his amendment to defund some $24 million from the 26-year-old ag land preservation program, whose primary funding comes from a .5 percent county real estate transfer tax.

He reiterated his desire to end funding for the program, after his amendment got to the floor Tuesday courtesy of a second from Councilman Curtis Beulah.

Perrone said his amendment would not immediately end the program, which pays owners of productive farmland for development rights so the property can never be used for housing or other development, explaining the designation of transfer tax funding for the program would have to be changed by a combination of state law and voter referendum.

“Would I like to see the program end? Yes,” he said, adding that defunding would be a first step to taking the use of the money back to referendum.

Perrone said 51,000 acres currenty in preservation, about 22 percent of all land in the county irrespective of Aberdeen Proving Ground, would remain preserved, even if the program were to end. There also are thousands of acres of parkland and land that can’t be developed because of location, topography, soils or other physical barriers.

“Times have changed” since program preservation program started, he said, as have county needs, and he gave examples of what $24 million could fund, such as additional EMS crews, school rescource officers in elementary schools and school building renovations or replacements, more Harford Transit bus routes; or he said, the money could be used to forestall future tax increases to pay for such needs.

Perrone said the program “only benefits farmers” and “open space bought by public money ought to be open to the public,” but his arguments were unconvincing to his colleagues, who jumped in to defend the program.

The development rights payments to farmers “are not a subsidy,” but are compensaion “for what farmers are giving up,” said Councilman Chad Shrodes, while Councilman James McMahan called the program “beneficial.”

“The farm stays in production,” McMahan said. “They aren’t making any more land. If you don’t conserve, you are going to lose it.”

Tax rates unchanged

The council also unanimously passed a resolution setting the real property tax rate at $1.042 per $100 of assessed value for property outside the municipal boundaries of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace and a rate of $0.8937 per $100 of assessed value for property within the three municipalities.

The revenue generated by the $0.1483 “differential” is used to fund highway operations and improvements. The three municipal governments, which also collect property taxes, paid for their own highway operations.

The county real property tax rates have not changed in a decade, nor have the personal property tax rates, which were again set at $2.6047 per $100 for the county only and $2.2342 inside the municipalities.

Personal property taxes are levied primarily on business equipment, with the largest amount of revenue in Harford County from this tax coming from Exelon and its subsidiaries that own electric distribution and generating facilities, including Conowingo Dam and a power plant in Perryman.

Although the tax rates are not changing, some property owners can expect to see higher tax bills in July because of state reassessments last year in an area that included Edgewood, Abingdon, Aberdeen, Riverside and Level. Property valuations increased an average of 4.5 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and taxation.

The new budget also comes with a new 20 percent property tax credit for retired military veterans and senior citizens who have lived in their current homes for at least 40 years. The five-year credit program, authorized by state law, was set up by local legislation approved by the council and signed by Glassman last December.

Almost 3,000 property owners qualified to receive the credit, administration officials said Wednesday.

The new credit is estimated to cost $1.9 million in lost revenue annually. Some of that will be offest by eliminating a 1 percent to .5 percent discount for early payment of taxes, which won’t take effect until July 1, 2019. The discount will still be in effect for the new tax year starting this July 1.

This story contains a correction from an earlier version. County employees are eligible to receive a 2 percent cost of living increase and a $2,000 merit based increase under the fiscal 2019 budget.
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