Teacher pension shift could have serious consequences on Harford, local delegates say

The only thing holding back the state from giving counties more responsibility for paying for teacher pensions is the governor's signature.

Last week, the House of Delegates passed legislation that will shift pension costs, as well as a measure that requires each county to maintain a minimum level of funding for schools every year.

Both bills are part of a package that includes the state budget, all of which Republican delegates and a handful of Democrats were adamantly against until the end. That includes Harford's delegates and senators.

The 93-44 vote in favor of the legislation came after two days of sessions and several amendments being offered by both parties.

"It's something we've never seen," Del. Rick Impallaria said, "Democrats getting up and opposing any part of the budget."

In spite of this, Impallaria, who represents western Harford and eastern Baltimore counties, said, "Leadership didn't listen and didn't care."

While this won't affect Harford as much as it may other counties, he continued, there's a possibility of taxes still increasing to cover the additional expenses.

"Taxes in Harford will probably have to go up on the local level to meet the maintenance of effort and meet the other requirements for teacher pensions," Impallaria said.

Spending cuts needed

Instead of pushing teacher pension costs onto the individual counties and spending those savings on other budget items, the delegate believes the state should reduce its spending altogether.

"It's like cutting someone's salary, but using that money to buy something else," Impallaria explained.

As expected, local educators have been nervous because of the two bills that could potentially affect their school system.

When Del. Kathy Szeliga heard from concerned teachers, she said she assured them they would still receive their pensions. Bumps in pay, however — that's a different story.

"It's certainly going to affect pay raises," said Szeliga, who represents the same areas of Harford and Baltimore counties as Impallaria. "I assume [it will] affect new hires, how much money the county has to spend on ongoing education expenses."

Szeliga said she's most surprised at the state's budget increasing each year, with no thought given to the impact on citizens.

"I am just astounded at the fact that we continue to spend over a billion dollars more each year," she said. "The state's pushing expenses onto the county and still spending more."

Impact coming already

As far as the maintenance of effort for education funding the school system must meet, Impallaria feels it won't hit Harford as hard as other counties, such as Montgomery County, because Harford has been more diligent in controlling the amount of money it gives Harford County Public Schools every year.

With the maintenance of effort bill, each will be obligated to spend more on its school system than the previous year. If this is not done or a county does not receive a waiver from the state, the state will be able to intercept the county's local income tax revenue and funnel it to the school system to reach the minimum amount required in maintenance of effort.

Harford County Board of Education Vice President Rick Grambo is vehemently against allowing the state to impound local tax dollars.

"It's not all candy canes and lollipops here," Grambo said during the March 26 school board meeting when state legislation was being discussed.

Grambo called the seizing of local revenue something that no one wants to talk about.

"I don't want to give up local authority," he said. "This is a bad deal. Don't support this."

At the same meeting, school board member Bob Frisch asked if the penalty would encourage counties to only meet the minimum amount of funding, as to not create too high of a bar for the coming years.

Harford County Executive David Craig has since said that's exactly what he did with the school system's budget request for 2013.

"That's an understandable perspective," the school system's lawyer, Patrick Spicer, who was filling in for legislative liaison Kathy Carmello, told Frisch.

From an educational standpoint, Spicer said, he doesn't think that would happen in Harford County because there has been consistent effort in the past to increase funding for education.

The penalty is a provision for counties that have demonstrated in previous years that they won't comply with maintenance of effort, he added.

Craig said Monday, however, that any county leader who funds schools above the state mandated minimum will be foolish, because he or she will just build in a higher base for their next budget, with no ability to go below it if economic times are tough.

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