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Havre de Grace postpones work sessions on 2021 budget because of coronavirus restrictions on gatherings

Two Havre de Grace City Council work sessions on the city’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget, scheduled for March 30 and April 13, have been postponed to later in the spring because of state restrictions on the size of public gatherings, meant to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

City officials, who have already taken significant steps to curtail municipal meetings, events and activities as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, planned to broadcast the work sessions online via livestream rather than open the council chambers to the public. They realized this week that state regulations, which limit public gatherings to 10 people maximum, meant even a livestreamed session would not be possible with six council members, the mayor, city department heads and a Harford Cable Network crew in the room.

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“We really wouldn’t have any room for the directors to answer questions” from the council if all six department heads could not be present at the same time, Mayor William T. Martin noted Tuesday.

Martin and other city leaders decided Tuesday morning to postpone the work sessions to “a date to be determine,” possibly late April or early May. There is enough “discretionary time” between now and when the formal budget ordinance is introduced during the first council meeting in June, the mayor said.

The typical schedule for approving the budget includes the introduction to council the first Monday in June, a public hearing the second Monday and a vote to adopt the third Monday, according to Martin. The current fiscal year ends June 30 and the next begins July 1.

Martin said he hopes Gov. Larry Hogan will lift his order limiting gatherings to 10 people by April or May.

“Then, we’ll have a budget work session that will be a lot more productive with more people in the room,” he said.

The mayor submitted a nearly $35 million combined budget to the City Council during its March 16 meeting. It includes a $20.3 million general fund, $13.9 million water and sewer fund and $659,300 marine facilities fund. People can review the full proposed budget on the city website, and they can submit their comments via email to City Council members or the directors of administration and finance, call City Hall at 410-939-1800 and leave a message, or even leave a note with their contact information in a drop box outside City Hall — the municipal building is open for business, but members of the public cannot conduct business with city staff face to face.

People should conduct business such as applying for permits or paying taxes and utility bills online or by phone. City Council President David Glenn encouraged people to leave messages for him or other council members if they want to discuss the budget, and he will get back with them.

“I have an open-door policy,” Glenn said Tuesday.

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Budget details

“I have increased spending on city infrastructure significantly, as mandated by citizens in the most recent special election,” Martin said as he introduced the preliminary budget, referring to the special city election on Feb. 4 when voters approved borrowing up to $15 million in bond funding to fix aging water and sewer infrastructure.

“Spending within the general fund is increased, as well, compared to prior years,” said Martin, who noted much of that additional spending will go to toward shoreline preservation projects supported by grants from Harford County and the state.

The proposed general fund budget of $20.34 million is nearly $5 million higher than the $15.37 million fund adopted for the current fiscal year, according to budget documents. A surplus of $609,600 is expected to be available when the next fiscal year starts. Officials also anticipate $3.35 million in county and state grants to support infrastructure projects such as redeveloping the Susquehanna River shoreline on property along Water Street that the city acquired from the county several years ago.

There is “a lot of good money coming our way to try to make Havre de Grace better,” Glenn said.

“We’ve just got to get through this virus and get back to normal,” the council president added. “You just have to do the right thing for the right reasons and let common sense be your guide.”

Other infrastructure projects include stormwater remediation to help improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, according to Martin’s introductory letter. The mayor also plans to spend nearly $5.2 million on capital projects in the water and sewer fund, such as $1.3 million worth of sewer line improvements along Commerce Street and $781,900 to upgrade water lines, according to budget documents.

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The mayor plans to keep property tax rates, as well as water and sewer rates, the same next year.

Revenue figures could change, as the city works through the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year amid a massive national economic slowdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. Community events large and small have been canceled, businesses have closed temporarily or sharply reduced service, schools are closed and many people are staying home to avoid catching the virus.

“The city does have a good cash flow on hand at the moment,” said Martin, who noted that officials expect some "slowdown in revenue before it picks back up.”

Martin has asked city staff to refrain from making any purchases the rest of the fiscal year “unless absolutely necessary.” Havre de Grace also has about $1.6 million in its emergency fund and a little more than $600,000 in its fund balance, or cash reserves, that can be used if needed.

“We’re definitely taking a proactive approach to reserving our funds on hand, for whatever might happen,” he said.

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