A Harford County Councilman blasted the county's loan program for local businesses, saying they're basically grants, not loans at all.

Councilman Jim McMahan said he is tired of the county or state throwing around taxpayer money.

"We're giving money out like a drunken sailor," McMahan said.

His comments came during a hearing on a plan to give a conditional loan of up to $160,000 to HP White Laboratory in Street, which Jim Richardson, Harford County's economic development director, said has been in the county for more than 50 years and is one of the oldest military testing firms.

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The company plans to spend $4 million to expand its facility and hire up to 50 new employees. It has 34.

"For fear of getting tabbed as an anti-business person, I'll tell you somewhere we've got to put a halt to this," McMahan said. "You can lend money any day in the world, and I don't care if it's 1 percent, but get your money back. That's the way you run a business."

Richardson said he did not disagree, but "can only tell you that we're in a market and yes, we're competitive. To be competitive with other states, we have other companies that are being recruited right and left."

McMahan demanded to know how many companies have actually left, and Richardson said some are talking about it. Tucker McNulty, also with the economic development department, later added Nutramax moved half of its operation to South Carolina.

McNulty noted the company must spend $40,000 on training.

"For us, it's a win-win because they're going to be reimbursed only for what they train and that is increasing the skill set of an employee here, and we look at it as an economic development tool," McNulty said.

Councilmen Dion Guthrie and Chad Shrodes, however, said the loan might help the county at large.

"While right now we're in a state of where we are potentially staying flat or even losing jobs because of sequestration, activities like this that are expanding in our county may save us," Shrodes said.

Guthrie said people "griped" about the loan given to Smiths Detection, but the firm has hired many employees and contributed much to Harford.

He said the county has seen many of these loans come back and give "gifts" to the county.

"They aren't gifts, they're investments in our citizens," Guthrie said.

Signs of safety

The council also held a hearing on a bill that would allow electronic signs for public safety purposes regardless of zoning.

Councilman Joe Woods explained some fire companies want the signs, but the zoning would not permit them.

The company in Fallston, which Woods represents, tried to apply for a sign and Harford County Executive David Craig even put money in the budget for it, he said.

Now, he said, "they're still sitting there with a brand-new marquee and no sign."