Harford executive Craig says state's unfunded mandates still a problem

Harford County is "sound and stable" but will continue to face financial challenges because of unfunded mandates from Annapolis, County Executive David Craig told the County Council Tuesday.

In his annual State of the County address, Craig said the cost of government will continue to increase "so much more," despite Harford's success at maintaining services while cutting 10 percent of its workforce since 2008.

Craig blamed the "myriad of fiscal problems" facing the county on the federal government or "our friends in Annapolis."

Those include continued cuts in highway user revenues, new responsibility by local governments to pay most of the costs associated with tax assessments, land use policies that "threaten to lower rural property values" and forcing counties to allocate significant funds toward education.

"The state of Maryland must stop this trickle-down approach to balancing their budget on the backs of local jurisdictions," Craig said.

Craig said the county's successes this year have included the new Southern Precinct for the Sheriff's Office, the completion of the first 20 miles of the 100-mile HMAN project, the return of the county council to 212 S. Bond St., a new bus line to Cecil County and the Housing Agency's work in resolving or preventing mortgage delinquency.

"We feel it's one reason why foreclosures in Harford County are much lower than the rest of the state," Craig said, in a diversion from his scripted speech.

The procurement department saved taxpayers more than $1 million through various purchases.

Also, Harford Community College "is still the lowest-cost community college in the state of Maryland," he said.

"No matter what the state does as a result of their failure in fiscal leadership and responsibility, Harford County must continue to move forward and continue to build on the successes we have achieved during the past seven years," he said, quoting the Book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Council President Billy Boniface, meanwhile, said in his legislative address that the council is glad to be back from "exile" in its temporary offices at 18 Office St. and is focused on the budget process.

"We now have a one-stop shop on the second floor of 212," Boniface said, thanking administration members for also helping by instituting measures like the auditor's office and charter amendments, and having "the foresight to work with us instead of against us."

He also said the council is working on a variety of measures despite the troubles from Annapolis.

"By staying together, adversity has made us stronger as a group," he said of the council, noting it is no longer a "stepchild" in the county but is taken more seriously as an office.

Boniface said the county's facilities master plan is one main critical need and he hopes it will produce an "unbiased and realistic" report of the county's priorities and needs.

"It is our hope to take the politics out of the capital improvement process," he said.

Boniface went over the lobbying priorities of the individual council members, including the traffic safety task force, Youth's Benefit Elementary School, improved traffic along Route 22 and the obesity task force.

He also hinted at his personal challenges during 2012 of losing his son, Ben, but reassured the county he had no plans to quit.

"As everyone knows, I had a tough 2012," he said. "For everyone who asks me how it's going: I am doing OK, taking it day by day, and I plan on being here for a long time."

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