Harford County's economic standing is better than that of Maryland, many other states and the United States as a whole, but its autonomy is being threatened by state mandates, Harford County Executive David Craig declared in his State of the County address Tuesday.
Before a packed council chambers, Craig again touted the county's surplus in the last fiscal year, and contrasted it with towns and jurisdictions nationwide that have requested bankruptcy, the "negative outlook" and deficit for the state of Maryland and the bond rating decrease for the United States.
"Could Harford County have been in the same situation? Without the collaboration and the cooperation of the county council, the simple answer is yes," Craig said, adding that the "good leadership" of department heads also contributed to keeping Harford economically viable.
"The state of Harford County is strong, and this is despite the fact that we were beleaguered in 2011 with the challenges all the counties have experienced," he said.
Craig sharply criticized the attempts of Gov.Martin O'Malley's administration to force Harford County to bend to its will, but simultaneously told county council members they must be prepared to take on capital projects Craig's administration considers vital.
The state wants Harford to implement an expensive watershed improvement plan, take on the $9.8 million burden of teacher pension costs "so [state officials] can balance their budget," shift more prisoners to Harford's detention center, cut funding by $4 million to Harford's school board and "take over our authority on planning and growth" with the PlanMaryland initiative, Craig said.
"They must be stopped," he said of the O'Malley administration.
Craig also said the county has capital projects "that must be considered."
"There will be another round of BRAC in 2015 or 2016, but this time we have instituted a very unique program in the state of Maryland," he said, explaining the state will inspect all the essential projects the county wants to do.
Craig said he knows the waste-to-energy facility will be controversial, but told the council members they each have a project in their district they do not want.
"The reality is, we need to provide these services and we need to provide these capital projects," he said.
The county also needs a stronger drug prevention and education program, an aggressive anti-recidivism program at the detention center and an examination of impact fees, Craig said.
He avoided mentioning the tug-of-war between his administration and Harford County Public Schools over the teacher bonuses, saying only that he worked successfully with the school system on school overcrowding.
Craig listed other economic achievements: obtaining 80 new defense contractors, getting an expanded retail base and 2,300 new jobs, maintaining "one of the best" unemployment rates in the region, getting a AAA bond rating, ending school overcrowding through forward-funded projects and running "the most successful drug prescription takeback program in the nation."
The county crime rate is the lowest since 1975, he said.
Also, "for the first time in history, we have adopted a tax rate that's below the constant yield," he said.
"Harford is a beautiful, vibrant, historic community in which to live, work, raise a family and retire," he said. "We accomplished much in 2011."
Drug and alcohol abuse among Harford's young people is growing at an "alarming" rate, County Council President Billy Boniface said during his legislative address the same night.
Boniface cited the common assertion that "our children are our future."
"If this is true, then I say our future is in jeopardy," he told the full council chambers.
"I'm sure there isn't one person in this room who hasn't been touched [by addiction]," he said, implying better programs and treatments are needed.
"No one chooses to be an addict. It's a disease and should be dealt with accordingly," he said.
Boniface said his address was not going to dwell on the accomplishments of 2011 but would concentrate on goals to be achieved.
He mentioned the master plan, which the council had yet to vote on and which had last-minute amendments to be considered later that night.
"This is probably one of the most critical pieces of legislation that this council will be asked to approve during its term in office," he said.
With the amendments still to be considered, Boniface assured the crowd the council does not take the responsibility lightly.
He also said he hoped the charter amendment process will address many of the issues other charter review boards have addressed previously.
The council is set to consider those amendments in the coming months.
Like Craig, Boniface said the "uncertainty" of the General Assembly this legislative session will have a "profound effect" on the council's process.
He said the future will require cooperation, and he looks forward to working with the county executive on the master facilities plan and developing a capital improvement program that is "based on real needs and hopefully not politics."
Boniface also said the Harford County Sheriff's Office must be able to keep up with the population's needs, while agencies like the judiciary and the state's attorney office also require support.
He hinted at the conflict that erupted in December over teacher bonuses.
"Teachers need to be compensated at a level that allows us to retain our best and brightest but not at the expense of those who serve the citizens of Harford County," he said. "All contribute to making Harford a success and each should be treated equally."