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Proposed Harford budget tops $1 billion, sees reduced tax rate; broadband expansion, police body cameras prioritized

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman unveiled his proposed $1 billion-plus budget for the upcoming fiscal year Monday, which reduces the tax rate and prioritizes expanding broadband access in the northern reaches of the county and body cameras for the sheriff’s office, along with fully funding the Board of Education’s operating budget request.

Sitting at a total of more than $1.038 billion, the proposed budget would be notably larger than the previous year’s nearly $948.3 million total budget. The property tax rate would also be reduced slightly, as the county adopts a constant yield tax rate for Fiscal Year 2022, meaning it will collect the same amount of money as it did in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, but the rate will decrease because of rising assessments.

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The current tax rate is $1.042 per $100 of assessed value. With the constant yield, the rate would drop to about $1.028, according to Treasurer Robert Sandlass. That will translate to about a $41 saving on a tax bill for an average homeowner that has a property valued at about $290,000, he said.

This is only the draft budget, which will ultimately require approval from the Harford County Council. Glassman will present the budget to the county council at their meeting Tuesday night.

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Both the general and capital funds would markedly increase from the current fiscal year — the former to $658.6 million from $632.4 million and the latter to $201.6 million from about $145.1 million.

Glassman explained the number was buttressed in-part by federal funding for local jurisdictions delivered as part of the American Rescue Plan — the $1.9 trillion federal relief package passed in March.

While that money is welcome in the county, Glassman said he wanted to use it on one-time expenses — like hastening the expansion of broadband — and not rely on it for recurring costs, understanding that the chances of another federal payout of this scope were slim. That gives the county the opportunity and capital to upgrade its infrastructure and undertake some capital projects to benefit public safety. About $10 million in federal funds will be used to expedite the broadband expansion.

In March, the county partnered with ThinkBig Networks to help extend broadband access to areas in the northern reaches of the county. The county would expand its own fiber optic line, from which the company can branch off to deliver internet to homes.

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Other outlets for that federal funding include infrastructure projects like converting 34 miles of tar-and-chip roads to asphalt. In the past, the county has deferred many road projects because of cuts to highway user revenue that federal funding is now available for, Glassman said.

Beyond the federal stimulus, Glassman said that Harford County’s economy was resilient and was not as impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as other counties with shakier economies. But there is still fiscal uncertainty, he cautioned, which the county has to be prepared for. To that end, Glassman said this round of budgeting would bring the county’s fund-balance to about $23 million — where he likes to keep it.

“Not to brag, but we are in a really strong position,” he said.

Other priorities in the capital budget plan include body-worn cameras for Harford County Sheriff’s deputies.

The sheriff’s office has for years requested funding for body-worn cameras, and the proposed budget prioritizes the technology, Glassman said.

A package of police reform bills recently passed by the General Assembly include a provision that all county-level law enforcement agencies in Maryland have body cameras by July 2025. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office, one of the four largest departments in the state that have not yet adopted body cameras, must do so by 2023.

Glassman said he wanted Harford to be ahead of any requirements, which it will be.

“I see that program really as twofold — not only protecting our community … but it also provides a degree of protection for law-enforcement officers too,” he said.

That investment is not just for the sheriff’s office; additional personnel will be needed at the state’s attorney’s office to review the body camera footage.

The sheriff’s office will also get about $6 million in federal funds to replace vehicles in its fleet, Glassman said.

The Board of Education’s budget request of $293.8 million from the county will also be fully funded, Glassman said, increasing $16.9 million over the current fiscal year, in which the school system’s operating request was also fully funded.

Superintendent of Schools Sean Bulson, in an emailed statement, said Harford County Public Schools was grateful the county executive fully funded education for the second straight year in his proposal.

“It’s great to serve a community where the county leadership works together on behalf of all of its citizens,” Bulson said. “The county executives’ proposal to fully fund the budget provides the school system support in a time that we need it most.”

This year, qualifying county employees will also receive a 3% cost of living increase and a $3,000 merit-based increase, Glassman said. There will be equivalent increases at the state’s attorney’s office and for workers in the county’s Circuit Court, he added. Qualifying county employees could also become eligible for a $1,000 COVID-19hazard bonus for working during the pandemic.

The county will also fully fund the Harford County Humane Society’s budget request and provide $1 million for addiction and behavioral health services, Glassman said.

Volunteer fire companies would also see a 3% increase in their funding from the current fiscal year under the proposed budget, bringing the total to $7.6 million from the county.

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