Harford's Craig unveils 2014 budget with no tax increases, no raises

Harford County Executive David Craig is proposing a 2014 general fund budget that is 1.3 percent, or $6.3 million, larger than the 2013 budget, among the smallest increases of the eight budgets Craig has presented during his tenure.

The new budget does not include any tax increases, nor does it include any pay raises for county employees or for employees of the Harford County Sheriff's Office and Harford County Public Library, Craig said during a media briefing on the budget Friday afternoon.

The general fund budget, which is proposed at $494 million, covers most government administrative functions, law enforcement and education.

"I would love to give the employees some kind of pay increase this year," Craig said, but with the potential of sequestering and furloughs at the federal level, he said county government raises would not be possible. He noted Aberdeen Proving Ground had discussed laying off as much as 20 percent of its staff because of the federal budget sequester, which would have a ripple effect on Harford's tax revenue.

The county's property tax rate would stay at the constant yield rate of $1.042 per $100 of assessed value, Craig said. The county tax rate of 89.6 cents within the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace also will not change. The difference reflects a highway tax not imposed in the municipalities.

The county expects to receive $15.5 million in additional local income tax revenue during the next fiscal year but also expects to collect $3.3 million less in property taxes, he said. Those taxes account for about 89 percent of the general fund's revenues.

Most of the modest spending increase in the general fund is from the cost of employee pensions and the state's decision to shift the cost of teacher pensions to the county, which adds $1.5 million to the new budget.

In addition, Craig said he would add almost $2 million to the county's appropriation for the public school system above the state required maintenance of effort level. That increase, however, will be far below the $22 million the county board of education was seeking and is likely to endanger funding for the 1 percent cost of living raise and incremental step increase package school officials have negotiated with unions to give their 5,400 employees.

Craig mentioned once again Friday that the county has given the school system far more funding in general than the state has. In the current school year, the county provided almost $220 million, or about 51 cents of every dollar, for the school's system's $428 million unrestricted operating budget. That share would have climbed to 54 cents under the new $443 million budget the school board approved earlier this year, had Craig agreed to fund the full share requested from the county.

Instead, the school budget allocation from the county for 2014 has been set at $221.3 million by Craig, who is also proposing to spend almost $15 million to support the operation of Harford Community College and $16 million to support the Harford County Public Library.

In addition to increases for education, Craig said the new budget includes half-year funding for the salaries of 10 new correctional officers to be hired for staffing at the expanded county detention center.

The Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association would be funded at $9.2 million to support the fire and emergency operations system, with those funds to be distributed among the county's 12 private volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

The only other time the year-over-year change in one of Craig's budgets has been smaller was in 2008-09, when spending declined 5 percent from the previous year, county government spokesman Bob Thomas said late Friday.

The county's proposed total operating budget for 2014 is $638 million, about $12 million higher then the $626 million operating budget in the current fiscal year.

In addition to the general fund, the full operating budget includes highway and water and sewer operations, solid waste disposal and the county's agricultural land preservation program.

Unlike the general fund, the funds have specific dedicated revenue sources, such as user fees for water and sewer, state gas taxes and the county property tax differential for highways, hauler tipping fees for solid waste operations and the property transfer tax for agricultural preservation.

Highways operations are proposed at almost $49.5 million in fiscal 2014, while solid waste services are budgeted for $14.8 million and the water and sewer system operating fund will be $47.1 million, plus an additional $14.1 million budgeted for water and sewer debt repayment. Agricultural preservation is funded at $6.2 million.

Craig also created a $10 million special fund in the new budget for stormwater management, to be funded from a proposed $125 per home fee that is expected to be pared down the first year through county council action on Tuesday night.

Capital budget

Craig also proposed a new capital budget totaling $162.4 million, a $38.2 million increase from the current capital budget of $124.2 million.

The new capital budget includes funding toward replacement buildings for Youth's Benefit Elementary School at $15 million and Havre de Grace High School at $3.7 million and for major renovations projects at Joppatowne High School at $13.7 million.

Total funding for school projects is funded at $60 million, with an additional $11 million proposed for construction projects at Harford Community College.

The new capital budget contains almost $27 million for law enforcement and public safety projects, including $10 million for the new emergency operations center and $13 million for a 700 MHz emergency radio system.

Craig also plans to spend $14 million on athletic field improvements at local schools, $6.3 million on the closure of the former Spencers Landfill east side in Abingdon, $4.4 million for repairs to the circuit courthouse, $6 million on the Southern Resource Annex planned in Joppa, $2 million on the metro area broadband network called HMAN for short and $2 million for "safeguarding business operations."

The 2014 operating and capital budgets combined are $800,494,757 compared to $749,943,142 in the current fiscal year, an increase of $50.5 million or 6.7 percent.

The budget is expected to be introduced in legislative form at the Harford County Council's session Tuesday. It can be viewed in its entirety on the county website.

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