Requests for funding new recreation centers, as well concerns about local infrastructure, public schools and the ongoing opioid crisis dominated the discussion during Harford County’s fourth annual virtual town hall on the county budget Thursday evening.
People could give comments on the fiscal 2019 budget, which County Executive Barry Glassman and his staff are still preparing, either in person, by phone or online. The 30-minute event was held in Darlington Hall at Harford Community College and streamed live online.
“I want to assure you that no matter how you contact me ... I listen to your comments and I will take them to heart,” Glassman said in his opening remarks.
About 20 people attended, according to county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby. Mike Mason, senior government affairs specialist and the evening’s master of ceremonies, read several phone messages and multiple Facebook comments that were received.
People left 38 comments on the Harford County Government page on Facebook, both during and after the town hall. Some comments called for improvements to major highways such as Route 24 and Route 924 — both are maintained by the state — as well as improvements to water and sewer lines and sidewalks.
Many who gave input pleaded for a recreation center in Aberdeen, as equipment is being stored in “sea containers,” and games, and activities are held in local schools.
“Parks and Rec provides immeasurable services to this community without the amenities that are afforded our neighboring communities,” commenter Sanford Fisher wrote. “You expect kids to stay out of trouble with nothing to do? REALLY! This wouldn't be tolerated in any other part of the county, so why in Aberdeen.”
Carol Garitty wrote that she would like to see “paid firefighters instead of a dwindling volunteer force.”
Glassman has put a county-run EMS system in place, with the first county-owned ambulance hitting the road last Sunday, although the system is not meant to replace services provided by volunteer fire companies. The county executive also has said he does not plan to start a paid fire service.
Mason relayed a phone message expressing thanks for the new county EMS units.
Several who attended in person called for building a recreation center in Jarrettsville, so programs have their own place to store equipment and do not have to hold activities in schools.
“It’s just a real problem trying to use the schools as our rec programs,” Nancy Smith, of the Jarrettsville Recreation Council, said.
She said the gym at Jarrettsville Elementary School is too cramped for basketball games and spectators have no place to sit. She said the cheer program ended because there was no place to store mats.
“We also are on a downward trend for basketball because we don’t have a gym that would accommodate anybody over the age of 7 or 8,” she said.
Smith said a recreation center for Jarrettsville has been listed in the county’s capital budget, although funding would not available for several years. She asked Glassman to move it up the priority list.
Brian Jones, who also works with the Jarrettsville Recreation Council, echoed that request.
“We’d really love to see that moved a little closer up so we can take advantage of those facilities for our kids,” he said.
Diego Tejada, a tae kwon do instructor for Jarrettsville, also urged Glassman to fund a local recreation center.
“These students that we’re trying to help and grow as martial artists become part of the community,” he said.
Abingdon resident Rachel Ashbrook, who has spoken out about racism and diversity issues at Harford County Board of Education meetings, urged Glassman to commit funding to agencies such as Harford County Public Schools and the Sheriff’s Office to provide diversity and cultural awareness training so their employees can better interact with a diverse population.
She cited racially charged incidents that have happened in Harford County in the past year, such as racist fliers distributed in a Bel Air-area neighborhood and a group of Bel Air High School students who posed for a photo while spelling out a racial slur.
“This is the county that I want to raise my children in, and I want any friend of their’s to feel welcome,” Ashbrook said.
Glassman got thanks from two education representatives — school board member Thomas Fitzpatrick thanked him for helping to create a better working relationship with the school system, providing funding to support the school board’s commitment to raising teacher salaries and providing capital funding to build a replacement for Havre de Grace Middle and High School.
“I’m very pleased to be able to say that the situation today is considerably better than it was, and I’d like to express my gratitude to the county executive and the County Council for supporting us,” Fitzpatrick said.
Richard Norling, chair of the Harford Community College Board of Trustees, thanked Glassman for an increase in county funding in the current fiscal year, and he encouraged the executive to provide enough funding so the college can provide raises to its employees that are equal to any raises given to county employees next year.
He said state funding for HCC and other community colleges must increase as well — HCC President Dianna Phillips has proposed a budget for 2019 that comes with a 2.7 percent tuition increase.
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“We are working very hard in Annapolis, hoping to change that situation in Annapolis, but it does take time,” he said.
Glassman acknowledged in his closing remarks the requests for recreation centers. He said the county has maintained its Triple-A bond rating and sold $50 million in bonds at 2.6 percent interest because of, in part, his administration’s willingness to make “tough decisions” and push back many capital projects.
He said “the good news” is that the county is seeing more revenue through economic development and increases in property assessments.
The county will remain “very conservative” in its budgeting, based on changes in federal tax policy and “ some of the things not in our control,” Glassman said.
“I think, going forward, the county will be in a better position to address some of these outstanding needs that we have in the county in a number of areas,” he said. “We have a pretty big list to work on.”
Glassman encouraged people to submit comments on the budget, either through Facebook and Twitter or via email at iGovHarford@harfordcountymd.gov.
He said final revenue projects should be available in the next month, and he is scheduled to submit the budget to the County Council in mid-April.