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Harford council passes $624 million operating budget

The Harford County Council passed a $624 million operating budget for 2013 Tuesday night, and a $123.8 million capital budget, but not before some council members lamented the budget process and a "breakdown in communication" with the administration.

Harford County teachers also made a last-ditch effort to get the council to increase funding for the Harford County Public Schools system, to no avail.

The county's property tax rate will remain unchanged from the prior year, at $1.042 per $100 of assessed value for real property and $2.605 per $100 of assessed value for personal property.

The budget is a 3 percent increase from the $608.8 million budget for 2012. County revenues are expected to be $584 million in 2013, more than the previous year.

The administration was hit by a last-minute requirement from the Maryland General Assembly that the county pay for teacher pensions, which was expected to be $5.5 million for 2013.

Councilman Dion Guthrie was alone in voting against the budget, explaining he had a problem with some last-minute amendments that proposed changes in the Harford County Sheriff's Office salary structure.

He said the administration had proposed raises for seven or eight deputies at a time when more than 1,000 other county employees will be going without raises for the fifth straight budget.

"I certainly don't want to deny those officers that raise, but the problem is the council was left a little bit in the dark," he said. "The sheriff himself didn't know anything about these increases."

Guthrie said it did not seem legally possible for the amendments to be reconsidered at that point.

Other six council members called the 2013 budget a difficult one, despite all voting in favor of it.

Council President Billy Boniface seemed tense about the relationship between the council and the administration of County Executive David Craig.

"I appreciate working with the administration - well, for the most part. And I think that was probably my biggest disappointment with this budget process," he said, citing "a breakdown in communication" that happened several times.

Deadlines aside, Boniface said, "it doesn't really matter if there's miscommunication."

"I hope we can move forward from that and do a better job," he continued, adding the council members "need to not just be handed a book April 1 and told, 'Here you go.'"

"That's not a productive way of leading," he said.

Guthrie said he does not expect the county's financial situation to get better next year.

"The way things are going, the way the economy's going, I don't see any relief coming next year," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the budget is probably the most "unusual" she has seen in her time in the legislature.

She said she has not seen another time when the process was held up because of the Maryland General Assembly, which just recently announced the terms of a teacher pension shift to the counties.

"It affects everyone's lives, whether they are taxpayers or paid for by taxpayer dollars," Lisanti said, adding the budget had some "disappointments" as well as some items that are "very good and forward-thinking."

She said it is not an easy time to be on the council dais, as the pot of money to provide services keeps getting smaller.

"We need to start with the items we can change quickly and get those out of the way so we can work on the hard ones," she said.

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