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'Solid and steady': Harford's Craig satisfied as his service as county executive ends

On his last full day in the office where he spent the past nine and a half years of his long public service career, Harford County Executive David Craig sounded content with his legacy and quietly modest about his achievements.

During a 90-minute interview session Nov. 26, Craig, 65, peppered his appraisal of his record long tenure as the leader of Harford's government with quotes from past presidents and his historical heroes.

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He immediately mentioned his latest read, Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism."

When asked about his reaction to the many controversies and shifting opinions that county residents brought to the table, Craig paraphrased a Roosevelt quote: "I represent the people, not their emotions."

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He expressed no real regrets about how he governed, including resorting to Theodore Roosevelt's "big stick" approach, as he did on more than a few occasions, such as creating a new county department of emergency services, in an effort to bring more county control over the private fire and EMS system, or in advancing the construction of a new high and middle school for his hometown of Havre de Grace.

Even in his final days in office, he completed a $1 million purchase of future parkland on the Havre de Grace waterfront, a deal opposed by his successor, Barry Glassman, who took office Monday.

When he became county executive in mid-2005, Craig explained, he wanted to make sure the county "kept moving forward," with needed infrastructure improvements, pay raises for government employees and high levels of services for county residents.

He and his top advisers laid out an ambitious capital projects plan for the next 10 years, which meant spending a lot of money for schools, firehouses, parks and government buildings.

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One of the initiatives was to install $1 million artificial turf fields for each high school, as well as major public recreation complexes in Fallston, Hickory and Creswell, which he conceded raised eyebrows at first.

"Sometimes buying the most expensive thing is the more conservative thing," Craig said. "That was a little difficult [of an] issue to get across to people."

Economic roller coaster

Harford County's economy was humming along fairly steadily when Craig became county executive. That didn't last.

"During our first four years we were pretty consistent with pay raises," said Craig, who has been criticized for being overly parsimonious in more recent years when the government employees pay is concerned. Then, however, the worst recession since the 1930s set in, beginning in 2008 and from there, according to Craig, the goal became "to keep safe, secure and steady."

When the economy tanked, so did home building, the county's chief economic engine of the previous three decades, and with that the county's largest revenue source, property taxes, stagnated.

Craig was forced to retrench. He cut spending on operations, laid off 34 employees in 2009, furloughed workers five days and later enticed nearly 60 veteran government workers and sheriff's deputies to retire early with an incentive program that paid them all of their accrued sick leaves, rather than just half. Changes were made to benefits for retirees, as full health insurance was cut for anyone who retired with less than 20 years of service.

Those moves were unprecedented and most were unpopular, as well, but not all were solely Craig's doing. The layoffs followed a nasty budget fight with the county council, which Craig said could have been avoided, if the council had worked with him in applying reductions, rather than dictating a 5 percent cut across-the-board in every agency.

The retirement benefit reductions were dictated by federal accounting rules mandating that governments set aside money to pay what are known as other post employment benefits, or OPEB, for retiree health insurance or similar non-pension benefits.

OPEB costs run into the tens of millions of dollars, and Craig said Harford government has been diligent in paying into the reserve, with about 34 percent of requirements covered, which he said is most among the state's largest counties, some of which have set aside zero. (The county school system has likewise deferred making such payments, claiming the county executive and county council haven't provided enough money in the way of annual funding increases.)

Through all the economic upheaval – county property tax, income tax, recordation and transfer tax revenue is still growing at a fraction of what it was 10 years ago – Craig avoided raising taxes and also avoided reducing services.

The county kept moving forward. Most of the first half of Craig's tenure was spent helping to prepare for and accommodate the federal base realignment process, or BRAC, that brought several thousand defense jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground and surrounding areas, and many new residents to the county.

Craig's BRAC program received national accolades and has been emulated by other communities similarly affected. Karen Holt, who was hired as the county's BRAC coordinator, was recently named by Glassman to be his economic development director.

Efficiency, change

Even before the economy tanked, Craig put together a broad-based commission to study efficiency and economy in county government. The panel, whose report was released propitiously in October 2008, recommended such actions as making employees pay a greater share of their health benefits, streamlining operations of the county's largest department – Public Works – and ending the practice of letting employees take home county-owned vehicles. All were implemented in some form.

Another recommendation was to privatize the operation of the county's landfill in Scarboro, while another was to end the classified status for deputy directors of county departments to make them more accountable to the county executive and another was to continue with Craig's $100 million "Global Space Plan" to build new county offices and a sheriff's headquarters in downtown Bel Air.

The latter plan was eventually shelved by the economy, although Craig says those facilities are needed and he believes the county can't keep renting space and having its leadership spread over multiple locations. "You really need to have all the department heads working in the same building," he said.

The landfill remains county operated, but Craig said he believes the new administration will move in the direction of some form of privatization as the facility nears the end of its useful life. He also predicted that his first steps for planning to get control over the county's byzantine private trash collection system will be followed through by his successor.

Craig ironically opposed the change in status for deputy directors to at-will employees, saying it would hurt the county in the long run by taking away needed continuity between administrations. The county council approved the change this summer through a charter amendment that Craig vetoed and was overridden. County voters approved the amendment last month and it takes effect with the change in administrations.

Strained but 'cordial'

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Despite a number of battles over budgets and legislation, particularly as his long tenure was winding down, Craig said his relationship with the Harford County Council remained cordial.

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He said having council members being elected only by residents of their own districts, rather than countywide, a process that began only in 2002, has made them too focused on their districts and not enough on the whole county.

Trying to push through bonuses in 2011 for county and school employees who had gone several years without pay raises also proved a challenge with the council and the county school system. A $32 million surplus made his proposal of $1,250 bonuses possible, but Craig said he did not want to lock the county into putting the money into the employees base salaries because of the continued uncertainty with the economy.

"It was a little frustrating," he recalled, pointing out that employees, especially younger teachers in the county, are again complaining about lack of expected raises.

Eventually, the bonuses were halved at the insistence of the county council and with reluctant agreement from Craig. The money was used instead toward funding the county share of teacher pensions, a move mandated by the state and one which Craig predicts will eventually increase from the current 50 percent local obligation to 100 percent local.

While he was cleaning out his office, Craig said he found many letters from educators saying "Thank you for the bonus" and wishing the council had not eliminated half of his proposed amount.

Craig estimated 80 percent of the legislation that came before the county council in the past decade was initiated by his administration and added: "It was very rare that legislation went over and got killed."

The revival of the community council system, largely dormant when he took office, is another accomplishment in which Craig expressed pride, explaining the councils have given a bigger voice to places such as Fallston, Jarrettsville and Darlington that don't have their own local governments.

"We were glad they became pretty active," he said.

As a former mayor of Havre de Grace, as well as serving one term each in the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate, Craig said he supports incorporation for Edgewood and Joppatowne, the county's two most densely populated communities. He said both should have municipal governments and police forces.

If he does have any regrets, Craig said he would have liked to accomplish more with changes to the county's fire and EMS system, after a 2010 study suggested creating a county department to oversee the system. The department was created, but the system largely remains in control of the fire companies and their private association.

"We knew we weren't going to get everything done by 2014 and we were going to lay a foundation for the next administration to look at it," he said.

"You have a vision to get things done, but when you come in you are never aware of everything," he added. "I'm happy with what we got done."

Craig also said he believes his biggest accomplishments were on the policy side, not infrastructure.

"It's not about bricks and mortar. It's about keeping us solid and steady," he said.

Getting an education

Craig's departure also may mark an end to his long relationship with the county's school system, including more than 30 years as a history teacher and assistant principal before he became county executive.

He said he believes the system needs a dramatic change in structure, either becoming completely separate from the county government or making it part of the government, which the school board simply serving in an advisory role.

If he had been elected governor, Craig said he would have made a pilot program to change the oversight of the education system.

"We need to do that. This is the 21st century. We need to go one way or the other," he said.

Craig said he would have liked to see some logistical changes in educational facilities, such as moving Aberdeen's Center for Educational Opportunity closer to the middle of the county. He also noted there have been no real improvements to county middle schools, until the proposal to replace Havre de Grade Middle, the county's oldest, by combining it with a new high school.

Despite declining enrollment and the perennial possibility of closing schools, Craig noted it is still important for more rural areas, like Norrisville and Darlington, "to have a community school."

His long years with the school system had prepared him for being on the other side of the fiscal coin when he became county executive, he said.

"I was never really surprised by anything," he said, adding that being an assistant principal prepared him well for service as a state senator in the late 1990s and a delegate in the early 1990s.

"Being a middle school principal was what prepared me for being in the General Assembly," he noted.

Being a longtime coach with Havre de Grace Little League helped him as well.

"You learn how to put a team together. You learn to see what is good and what is bad," he said. "Sometimes you play well but you lose."

Moving on

Touching briefly on his failed run for the governor's office earlier this year, when he finished second in the Republican primary to Larry Hogan, who will move into the governor's mansion in January, Craig explained he just wanted someone to lead the state who would do a better job than outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley's team.

He is aiding Hogan's transition, hoping to work on the relationship between the state and its county and municipal governments.

One of Craig's plans for the future is focused on the past, as he wants to finish writing a book about the battlefields of Gettysburg – not the actual battles, but the layout of the battlefields as they evolved into the national military park.

He wouldn't speculate on whether his public service career, which began with his election of the Havre de Grace City Council in 1979, has reached an end, but proudly noted all three of his children, one of whom is a city councilman, and his eight grandchildren, all live in Havre de Grace.

Craig said keeping the community a good place for his children to grow up and live was the motivation for his career.

"That was why I ran for office in the first place," he said.

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