County council takes frugal, practical approach on final 2014 budget [Editorial]

In approving a county budget totaling $496.9 million balanced on last year's tax rate for the spending year beginning July 1, the Harford County Council demonstrated the incongruous qualities of being both frugal and practical.

With regard to frugality, the county government has managed to construct spending plans for the past several years that have been balanced without boosting tax rates or making harsh cuts to programs. This has been done even as the economy has tanked and property assessments have declined. The county has seen actual declines in tax revenue, as opposed to the usual government problem of having revenues increase, but not quite as fast as spending.

Throughout all this, the county has managed to maintain the necessities of government, and this year's budget, drafted by the executive branch and approved last week by the county council, is, for the most part, proof that a government can get by in tough times without increasing the tax burden on the general public.

It's also worth noting that the county council was systematic in its allocation of money for capital projects, in particular with regard to the school system, while at the same time resisting pressure to add county money to the operating budget for Harford County Public Schools beyond the increase that already had been included in the original draft of the budget by County Executive David Craig.

There's something a bit strange about the organization entrusted with teaching, among other things, math to our young people not seeming to understand the difference between addition and subtraction when it comes to school system budgets.

This year the school system requested from the county government $241 million, but the county executive budgeted $221.3 million, which constituted an increase of $1.5 million over what the school system received in the current spending year. Typically, an increase that is less than the increase requested by the school system is referred to as budget cuts, even though in real numbers it is an increase.

Moreover, the county's allocation to the school system has increased over the past decade, even as enrollment has declined. The county executive and the head of the county teachers union have different perspectives on the relationship between the decline in enrollment and increase in spending, but it is clear that enrollment has dropped in real numbers even as spending has increased in terms of both per student allocations and budget totals.

The county council did add nearly $2 million to capital projects for the school system, with the agreement of Craig, that will move the long delayed Youth's Benefit Elementary replacement project a few more inches forward and also added $250,000 for weight room repairs at Joppatowne High School and $640,000 for overall security enhancements.

Because the county officials have almost zero control over how much or where the school system spends operational funds it receives from the county, providing additional funding for some badly needed school capital projects, where the money has to be spent on the specific project – unless the county council agrees otherwise – is a smart, practical approach.

In addition to the issue of declining enrollment and its long-term impact on school spending, some questions have come to fore of late about just how many people the school system actually has on its payroll versus the number of positions that it budgets money for each year. Craig himself raised this question by noting in a recent letter to the media that more than 600 positions were added by the school system since he took over as county executive in mid-2005, even as school budget figures show a substantially smaller increase. That's the kind of conflicting math that makes it difficult for taxpayers to swallow talk about dire consequences if the school budget does not continue to increase exponentially year in and year out.

By approving extra operational money for the school system, the county council might have garnered the luster of being more education-friendly in the eyes of some, but the reality is the school system would do well to be held more accountable for what it spends.

The council wisely took the practical approach, giving only additional funding for capital projects – where it can still keep a hold on the purse strings.

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