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‘This is pretty sad’: Harford County Council receives minimal public comment on Glassman’s proposed budget

Four phone calls and it was over. The first public hearing on Harford County Executive’s proposed $948 million budget came and went in about 10 minutes.

The Harford County Council held its first public input session on Barry Glassman’s budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 and only heard two comments from citizens Wednesday. The council called three speakers for their comments, but one person — who was called twice — was feeling ill and did not participate.

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With a slight frown creasing his face, Council President Patrick Vincenti implored the public to participate in the next comment session on May 14.

“Please visit our website and call the office for more information on viewing and public participation,” he said, “and I am going to emphasize public participation because this is pretty sad.”

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The meeting was unusually short. The previous year’s May 9 budget meeting, according to the council’s video archives, ran nearly two hours. The meeting drew such a crowd that Vincenti asked speakers to leave the council chambers when they were finished to make space for others who wished to comment. According to Council Administrator Mylia Dixon, 33 people spoke at that hearing.

In view of Gov. Larry Hogan’s restrictions on gatherings and the dangers posed by COVID-19, the county council has begun streaming meetings on its YouTube page. Citizens can register to speak at the public addresses by emailing or calling ahead by a set date and time.

Vincenti said Wednesday’s turnout was disappointing because he knew the hard work the council, its IT department, the county administration and others put into giving citizens a platform to speak. Still, he understands why turnout was low; many in the county are dealing with financial insecurity and other difficulties presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"People are focused on businesses being closed, not having regular income; they are focused on their children’s education, not having a regular school day, all sorts of things,” he said. “It is just that people’s priorities are different during this pandemic.”

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Public comments on the budget — laudatory or critical — inform council members’ perspective on the document. They cannot catch everything themselves, Vincenti said, so offering citizens the chance to speak is a helpful way for legislators to gain a ground-level view of the proposed budget and its potential effects.

Past budget hearings have seen ups and downs in the number of comments presented. The only budget hearing in the past six years that ties Wednesday for the lowest number of speakers was held May 1, 2014. Only two spoke, according to figures Dixon supplied.

Each budget cycle gives citizens two meetings to comment on the proposal — spaced about a week apart from each other. Since 2014, the year with the lowest number of speakers across the two budget meetings was 2015, clocking in at 11 total speakers. The highest was 2019 with 70 total speakers.

Dixon said the pandemic has slightly impacted public comment at council meetings beyond Wednesday’s budget hearing, “which is understandable considering the changes citizens have had to adjust to in their daily lives."

One of the two speakers, Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the local teacher’s union, the Harford County Education Association, urged the council to adopt Glassman’s proposed budget, which would increase funding to schools by about $20.5 million from $256 million to $278 million.

She acknowledged that the school board’s capital budget had been cut but said the total fiscal outlook for schools was good.

“During this challenging economic time, I want to thank county executive Glassman for recommending to fully fund the school district’s operational budget,” Crawford-Smick said. "If you want to point out that there is still work to be done to get class sizes to a more appropriate number, this budget will allow the district to make movement in the right direction.”

The only other comment came from Guy Kern, of Fallston, who said that the state’s increased property tax assessments would burden already hurting county residents. He proposed a property tax holiday for fiscal year 2021.

“I just think it will put an undue hardship on the citizens of Harford County,” he said.

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