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Bel Air

News Maryland Harford County Bel Air

Craig challenges school funding critics, lists accomplishments in his last State of the County speech

In his final State of the County speech, Harford County Executive David Craig reminded residents of his 8 1/2-year legacy of building schools, improving public safety and saving taxpayer dollars by making government leaner.

"What do I hope people will say and remember about these past nine years? That we were not afraid to lead, that we were not afraid to sometimes make unpopular decisions knowing there was a bigger picture at play, that we acted with great purpose, and that this county is better positioned for the future," Craig told the packed council chambers Tuesday night.

Now in the thick of his gubernatorial campaign, Craig ticked off accomplishments in the six pillars of his administration: public safety, education, government efficiency, environmental stewardship and quality of living.

He noted he came into office in 2005, in the middle of a "deeply divided council that was embroiled in a contentious comprehensive rezoning process, and which had just, for the first time in county history, been forced to fill a vacancy in the office of county executive in the middle of a term."

Looking back, Craig said he and county residents have weathered "a myriad of challenges together."

With teachers' union president Ryan Burbey in the audience, the county executive countered accusations that he has failed to fully fund the school system.

Craig blamed the state, citing massive inequalities in the distribution of school funding.

"There are some who constantly speak, text, or blog about how some other counties have provided more funding. They miss the fact that the state is continually providing those counties more money than it does to us. Harford County is expecting an increase of less than $900,000 from the state next year," Craig said.

"Prince George's County's Board of Education is expecting an increase of nearly $47 million from the state, an increase over 50 times as large as ours," he said.

"The state formulas which fund our schools are broken, misaligned, and disproportionate in nature. They unfairly and adversely impact the proper state funding our children have a right to and deserve," he said.

Despite these challenges, Craig, a former teacher and assistant principal, said his administration worked with the Board of Education to eliminate overcrowded schools and grow county funding to schools by 35 percent per student.

He also said Harford Community College is a "premier" local institution of higher learning and remains one of the cheapest in the state.

Craig recalled his creation of a Department of Emergency Services, one of the main recommendations of the county's first Fire & EMS Master Plan, as well as the complementary Fire & EMS Commission to hold government resources accountable.

Despite the controversial creation of the commission, Craig thanked those who worked with him on the initiative.

He mentioned the collection of more than five tons of prescription drugs in a drug take-back program, a major initiative for his administration in a county with high rates of prescription drug abuse.

In the area of government efficiency, Craig said his administration has lowered property tax rates twice and made the government "leaner and more efficient" through hiring freezes, attrition and retirement incentives.

He said folding the Department of Governmental and Community Relations into the Office of the County Executive also saved money, as did elevating the Office of Information and Communications Technology to department status.

Several government functions have gone online, he said, namely the building permit program and all property tax and water and sewer accounts. Those bills can also now be paid online.

Craig said he and his employees have "transformed county government into an agency that is open, transparent, accessible and more user- friendly."

BRAC, which many argue did not provide as much of an economic punch as Harford hoped, nevertheless brought more than 1.5 million square feet of office space and 6,000 new jobs to the county, Craig said.

Defense contractors increased from 28 to 137, he noted.

Craig said he established a direct line of communication with the agriculture community by moving that department's offices to his floor and launching a Buy Local marketing campaign.

"We have also strengthened the county's farmland preservation program, which has preserved over 47,000 acres to date and ranks in the top 10 out of over 3,000 counties nationwide," he said.

Craig called the agreement to ship solid waste to Baltimore County's Eastern Sanitary Landfill a key environmental accomplishment, as "something must still be done with the remaining waste that cannot be recycled" and the Army plans to close its waste-to-energy incinerator on Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Other achievements in environmental stewardship included the "highly successful" single-stream recycling program and an increase on the cap for the county's solar and geothermal tax credit.

Craig also said he has been pleased with development in the county.

"From a planning standpoint, we have allowed for growth and redevelopment within the development envelope while not giving in to pressures to extend urban development into the county's rural areas," he said.

He thanked residents, employees and the County Council members for working with him through the years.

"While we may not have always agreed, and although there have been instances where consensus in the community was not attainable, let no one claim that we did not, or do not, put first and foremost our love of this county and our common desire to pass it on in a better state to our children and grandchildren," he said.

Legislative address

County Council President Billy Boniface steered clear of any mention of accomplishments in his 8th and final legislative address, launching instead into an appreciation of his fellow council members.

He described each council member with one word, calling Dion Guthrie an "advocate," Joe Woods an "enthusiast," Jim McMahan "reliable," Chad Shrodes "passionate," Dick Slutzky "stable" and Mary Ann Lisanti "thoughtful."

"It is the blending of these qualities and the understanding that we must always respect each other that has made us" a good council, Boniface said.

He also briefly warned of ongoing economic troubles for the county.

"We are in for another lean budget ahead for fiscal year 2015," he said.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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