Big Harford budget surplus means bonuses for county, school employees

Harford County Executive David Craig is giving all county government employees, school system employees and sheriff's office employees a one-time, $1,250 bonus.

Craig made the announcement to an overflowing room of employees at a Thursday morning press conference at the county's 220 S. Main St. building in Bel Air

The bonus payments are being made possible by a $32 million dollar budget surplus from the 2010-11 county fiscal year that ended June 30, according to Craig's spokesman, Bob Thomas. Typically, the county releases the results of the year-end financial report around Nov. 1.

The proposal has to go before the Harford County Council for approval. Legislative liaison Nancy Giorno said a public hearing is set for Dec. 6.

Taxpayers have already benefited from a lowered property tax rate, which Craig said is why the surplus is being used for this purpose instead of being put toward other projects or benefiting taxpayers more directly.

Also, "we have done a really good job at capital projects," he said.

"[Employees] are the ones who have not seen a benefit in the past three years. I think now it's time to give to the employees," he added, as his audience burst into applause.

Craig quoted a Bible verse from Romans about giving revenue to people who deserve revenue.

He said employees have continued to work hard despite facing furloughs and wage freezes for three years.

"I don't think the citizens of Harford County noticed a change in services at all," he said.

He noted the county has maintained a AAA bond rating and given residents tax cuts, and said he made a promise that as soon as the county's fiscal situation improved, he would try to give some bonuses to the county employees.

"I realize most of us would prefer it be a permanent increase," he said, adding he hopes that can be a reality if revenues stay level.

The fund surplus also includes $12 million the county is keeping, he said.

Those eligible to receive the bonus are county employees, Harford County Public School system employees, Harford County Public Library personnel, as well as personnel of the Harford County Sheriff's Office, the State's Attorney's Office, the Clerk of the Court and the judiciary employees.

In all, some 6,500 local government employees will receive the payments. More than 5,000 work for the school system.

Based on the estimated number of affected employees, the cost of the bonuses will run in the neighborhood of $7 million to $8 million.

The bonuses will be paid in two installments, the first in December and the second in June.

Two people whose agencies receive county funding, Mary Hastler, director of Harford County Public Library, and Sheriff Jesse Bane, thanked Craig during the press conference.

"It's been a rough three years in the department," Bane said. "We all have worked very hard…It's a testimony to our people that we haven't sacrificed any services to make this possible."

Hastler said the library's employees appreciate the bonus. She noted most of them live in Harford County, so the money will benefit the county, since they will spend most of it locally, and of course will pay part back in taxes.

"This really will mean quite a bit to them," she said.

Thomas, the Craig spokesman, said earlier that the county received local income tax revenue that exceeded estimates when the 2010-11 budget was approved in the spring of 2010. Craig also ordered all departments to curb their spending below what was approved in the budget and that also helped increase the surplus.

Most county government employees, including those who work for the sheriff — the county's main law enforcement agency — have not received an increase in their paychecks since the 2008-09 fiscal year. No raises were built into the current 2011-12 county budget that runs through June 30, 2012.

In addition to the $1,250 bonus money, Craig will use money from the budget surplus to fund some yet unspecified capital improvement projects. Such projects are typically funded with borrowed money, so the county will potentially save millions by not having to pay interest on construction bonds.

Thomas said Craig has some projects in mind but won't announce them until he has discussions with members of the county council who have final approval authority over the contents of the capital budget.

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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