Column: The race to spend Harford into the poorhouse

As most of you who read my columns already know, I think Harford County government spends far too much money than is necessary.

This doesn't mean I am against government spending per se or against public services. As I have also written many times, I think our county government in general does a fine job of providing services, be it parks and recreation, planning and zoning, highways, solid waste management and, to the best of my knowledge, water and sewer. (I don't live on the county public water and sewer system, so it's possible I might think differently if I did, but we don't tend to get many complaints about the service - just the cost, but then everyone complains about costs being too high.)

My beef comes with the people we elect to oversee the operation of the county, too many whom of late think we gave them a license to spend willy-nilly along with the key to the private washroom.

The current county executive and county council just don't get it. They've created a bunch of superfluous, in many cases highly paid positions, some populated by relatives or cronies or people sponsored by political fat cats. They've created and/or sanctioned consultant contracts that are little more than publicly funded stipends for the politically well-connected. They frequently approve or sanction all kinds of spending, such as computer and data processing software/equipment or consulting services that goes to supposed single source suppliers, even though they've already been burned in public for their past poor due diligence.

I thought it was prophetic back in 2008-09 when our reporters first uncovered the county council's scheme to provide each council member with a personal aide. Though the council backed off then, I warned a few colleagues we hadn't seen the end of it. Once the seven council members were safely re-elected in 2010, personal aides went back on the agenda and, now we have them.

The recent flap over the council administrator's 22 percent raise in 10 months, exposed by my colleague Bryna Zumer's reporting, has sent the council members into a shuck and jive like nothing I think I've seen in my 40 years covering Harford County government. Let's cut the bull on this one right now: The genesis for the raise was the administrator complaining she needed to be paid more than the new council attorney who was hired, and a committee of two or three - depending on who is falling on his sword this week - accommodated her.

This is what the leadership of our county has come to, basically people feathering their own nests and those of the chosen few, so to speak, and often doing so with impunity.

Granted, a lot of what is referred to above is penny-ante money when the budget approaches $700 million each year, but it tends to add up fast, like what happens when people go on a losing streak at the horse track or casino and keep pulling out more and more money until, whoops, there's no more to pull out.

The bigger picture is that when you have people in charge who aren't inclined to protect your public assets, including those who have been feeding at the public trough their entire adult lives like some of our county's elected leaders. These folks tend to make very expensive mistakes in the long run, and we are coming up on a two-year period where the current executive and council will be racing to spend a lot of money, as in hundreds of millions of dollars, not hundreds of thousands.

With so many of the long-term spending commitments the current county executive and council are poised to make over the next two years, can we really trust them to act responsibly? What schools to rebuild, how to get rid of our trash, decisions on a new emergency operations center and other public safety facilities, a new county office building are all on the proverbial plates of the current county executive and county council. These commitments could easily add up to a billion dollars of additional spending - most of it borrowed money, meaning we taxpayers will likely end up paying two to three times that amount.

By the way, I'm not cheered by the idea that the current group should just let things be in the hope their successors elected in 2014 are more fiscally responsible. The presumptive front-runner to become the next county executive is apparently telling the current group to hurry up and spend - at least when it comes to committing $80 million to $100 million for a new county office building - so he won't have to be on the hook for the decision. That's not my idea of leadership, either, especially when you really do have schools that need replacing far more than you need new facilities to house bureaucrats.

I was recently talking with a longtime acquaintance who has been involved in and followed the local political scene, and he pointed out, correctly I believe, that our county executives and county councils over the years have tended to do a few good things and some not-so-good things, too. It's possible that a few years from now I'll look back on the current executive and council and come away with a few positives. Provided, that is, I can still afford to live here.

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