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As Harford council begins budget review, stormwater mandates still an issue

As the Harford County Council began its review Tuesday of County Executive Barry Glassman's proposed $642 million operating budget for the 2016 fiscal year, a ghost of taxes past entered into the discussion.

Bret Schreiber, director of government and community relations, and one councilman said the fallout from the stormwater fee formerly mandated by a state, and widely mocked as a "rain tax," will continue to play a factor in this and future budgets at the county level, because stormwater remediation mandates aren't going away.

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Councilman Jim McMahan noted elimination of the rain tax was a big focus during the recent Maryland General Assembly session.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a major opponent of the fee, had been pushing to repeal the original bill supported by his predecessor but the final legislation would still require 10 jurisdictions to show they are paying to meet federal mandates toward stormwater mitigation.

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"I understand the long-term ramifications of that could be disastrous for our county," McMahan said.

Schreiber replied Harford and other large counties haven't totally escaped the much criticized initiative to protect the Chesapeake Bay, as "you can assume every single jurisdiction is in the same boat."

He said the county would have been expected to pay about $22 million annually for the remediation.

Schreiber said the county is "certainly" working with the Maryland Department of the Environment to resolve issues on the federal and state level.

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"The bill puts a lot of onus on the county," he said.

Shortly after taking office in December, the County Council, acting on Glassman's initiative, repealed Harford's two-year-old stormwater fee of $12.50 per home and 70 cents for each 500 square feet of impervious surfaces on commercial and industrial properties. The repeal takes effect July 1.

In its place, Glassman got the council to agree to using a portion of a long existing tax on property deed recordations to fund stormwater remediation operations.

His proposed $89.6 million FY 2016 capital budget also includes $6 million in stormwater remediation projects, which will largely be funded through pay-as-you-go money, general fund revenue not used for operations or other capital needs.

Director of Administration speaks

Director of Administration Billy Boniface, who previously served county council president, said his department's budget reflects his understanding of some problems within county government.

His budget is down by about $468,000, budget director Kim Spence told the council Tuesday morning. She noted there are "not a lot of changes" in Boniface's office.

"The greatest advantage I probably have is having to sit there for eight years," Boniface said, explaining he had some goals to achieve "right out the gate," among them to have a better relationship with the budget office.

Boniface said there has been better communication with Spence and the administration's new treasurer, Robert Sandlass.

"This administration has looked at the auditor's office, not as an adversary but as a resource," Boniface said of the auditor, who answers to the council and whose office and position he was instrumental in creating and then filling during his eight years as council president.

He said the auditor's office will be looking at a number of policies this summer, not only for the County Council but the County Executive's office.

Council President Dick Slutzky agreed, thanking auditor Chrystal Brooks for the "helpful fiscal impact notes" she has been providing with all legislation that could have a financial impact on the county.

County executive's budget

Glassman also presented his office's $635,085 budget, marking a sharp decrease from the roughy $2 million designated for the office in the current budget.

The budget shows six positions abolished from the Chief of Staff office and Constituent Services, and one transferred to the Office of Economic Development.

The county's Spending Affordability Advisory Committee determined the county should be prepared for modest growth, at about 2.49 percent, in the general fund budget.

As property values are starting to stabilize, the committee expects property tax revenues to rise 1.2 percent next fiscal year, according to the report.

"We have kind of done as much squeezing as I can see at the present time," Glassman told the council. "We all hope the economy will turn but the latest forecast is a very slow climb out of this recession."

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