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Harford executive urges future fiscal discipline in fifth annual State of the County address

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, in his fifth annual State of the County Address, highlighted successes of his first term that he said have put the local government on sound financial footing. But he stressed the need for fiscal discipline as the school system faces difficult cuts in balancing its budget and the possibility of a national economic slowdown.

“Our economy is growing, and we have made key investments in education, public safety — salary increases for teachers, deputies, correctional officers and our own county employees,” Glassman said as he delivered his remarks to the Harford County Council Tuesday evening.

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Glassman spoke to a gallery packed with county agency leaders and staff, law enforcement and school system leaders, invited guests and members of the community. His speech was titled “Building on Our Success.”

The county executive, elected to a second term in November, highlighted the progress that has been made in county finances since he first took office in 2014. The county maintained its top AAA bond rating, has seen a recovery of the local housing market and has projected annual increases of 2 percent, “moderate to strong” growth of income tax revenue, doubling the county’s fund balance, or cash reserves, paying down debt and balancing the county budget.

He said that, when he took office, “we were simply spending more than we were taking in — that wasn’t sustainable.”

“We have reversed it, and we have done all that without raising taxes,” Glassman said.

Glassman recalled that the rebuilt fund balance helped late last summer when flash floods — in which two people died — caused significant bridge and road damage in the county.

“We really don’t have to worry about how we were going to pay for it or borrow money,” he said. “We had the funds on hand.”

Glassman said county debt “nearly tripled” between 2006 and 2015. He said the county has, just twice in the past 20 years, paid off more debt than it has taken on, and both instances happened during his administration.

“It does require fiscal discipline and someone has to say no — which is usually me — to nice-to-have projects but [are] not essential,” he said. “So you can see why I am optimistic, as we head into the next four years, for our future.”

Glassman listed a number of new economic development projects happening or are planned. Those include construction of 1 million square feet of distribution and warehouse space, with a promise of 500 new jobs, in the Eastgate industrial park in Perryman; plans to build more than 2 million square feet of retail, commercial and warehouse space off of I-95 in Abingdon; the James Run development near the Route 543/I-95 interchange; and the re-use of the former Bel Air Auto Auction property off of Route 1 for a residential community.

He also cited the county’s partnership with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, federal and state governments and military researchers to build the Advanced Manufacturing, Materials and Processes, or AMMP, facility in the HEAT Center in Aberdeen to promote research and development of 3-D manufacturing processes.

Glassman, a Republican, said Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen had been “instrumental” in securing $38 million in Defense Department funding to help establish AMMP. He also announced that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has recently committed $1 million in state funds to help with building out the AMMP center.

Glassman announced the kickoff this week of the county’s Hometown Heroes program, offering up to $5,000 in closing cost assistance to first-time homebuyers who are employees of the Harford County government, Sheriff’s Office and Harford County Public Schools. Members of volunteer fire and EMS companies who have accumulated at least 50 points in the Length of Service Award Program, or LOSAP, retirement program are also eligible.

“My administration and every Harford County citizen enjoys a quality of life that is often taken for granted,” Glassman said. “The foundations of all strong communities are laid through hard work and the tireless efforts of our employees, our public servants.”

Caution ahead

Glassman also issued warnings about the state of the national economy and Maryland’s budget.

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He cited recent warnings by Moody’s Analytics economists that a national economic slowdown could happen in 2020. He also warned of a projected $1.5 billion structural deficit for the state next year, while Maryland’s Kirwan Commission has recommended $4 billion more in spending on public education over 10 years — some proposals in the commission’s report call for a local spending match of 40 to 50 percent, Glassman said.

Glassman also warned of “unsustainable” increases in health care and prescription drug costs.

“Since the federal government has failed to do anything to solve this national crisis, I am supporting a statewide effort to at least create a board to review these increases on the prescription side,” said Glassman, who is also president of the Maryland Association of Counties.

He discussed Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson’s proposed budget for fiscal 2020, which calls for cutting teaching and administrative positions to help balance spending and revenues.

Glassman said the Board of Education is “finally coming to terms with some difficult business decisions,” similar to what his administration made four years ago. He noted that “being proactive on health care costs, pensions, procurement reform does make a difference.”

“We stand ready to work with the [county] council to do our part in keeping the education system strong and our teachers supported,” he said.

Glassman said county officials are continuing to work to “fund and recover pay structures” for school, law enforcement and other public employees “so they never again fall six and seven years behind in their salaries.”

Strengthening communities

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Glassman emphasized the measures his administration has taken, in partnership with many other local agencies, to fight the ongoing deadly opioid crisis in Harford as well as provide more mental health services.

The county is partnering with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, state and local agencies, nonprofits and health care providers to develop the Harford Crisis Center off of Route 1 in Bel Air to provide inpatient and outpatient care to people dealing with mental health crises or addiction. The facility, which will be managed by Upper Chesapeake, is expected to open this spring.

The state has committed $750,000 to help the county finish construction on the crisis center, according to Glassman. The county executive said later that the local government has contributed $250,000 and Upper Chesapeake Health has contributed $1 million.

Glassman said a 24/7 hotline — 800-NEXT-STEP, or 800-639-8783 — established last October has handled 688 calls so far, and the county’s mobile crisis team has handled 138 calls requiring face-to-face visits. He noted 56 of those calls involved teens 17 years old or younger.

“The depths of addiction, depression or thoughts of suicide can strike any time, night or day, but there’s also a window of opportunity when the access to a caring professional and the right resources will save lives,” he said.

The county executive also discussed initiatives, such as the Family Recovery Court, to help people recover from addiction, find employment, expunge criminal records and heal relationships with loved ones.

“I’d like to remind folks that recovery and redemption is possible,” Glassman said.

He honored Joe Ryan, who recently retired after 19 years as the manager of the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy. Ryan was in the audience and received a standing ovation as he was recognized.

Glassman said Ryan’s efforts to fight opioid abuse through prevention programs, community outreach, even providing one-on-one support to people in crisis, have earned Harford County statewide and national honors.

Glassman said Ryan has been a “dedicated employee” for 45 years, citing his 26 years with the Maryland State Police prior to taking on the leadership of the drug control policy office.

“Joe Ryan has touched the lives of thousands of families in Harford County, and we’re going to miss him,” Glassman said.

The county executive also recognized several local Korean War veterans in the audience. He discussed the county’s contribution of $12,300 to help build a wall of remembrance, inscribed with the names of more than 33,000 Americans who died during the war, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve taken it on as a personal mission to make sure every county executive in Maryland and across the nation follows Harford County’s lead,” Glassman said.

He also touched on the county government’s partnership with the Harford County Public Library on the “Choose Civility” program to promote better personal relations among local citizens, solve interpersonal conflicts and decrease bullying.

“As I tell our schoolchildren, ‘Be kind to every kind’ and simply love one another,” he said.

Glassman said that, despite some people thinking he might be “getting soft” with his promotion of kindness and civility, he has led the county through a number of tragic events, including the murder of two Sheriff’s Office deputies in 2016, deadly workplace shootings in 2017 and 2018, numerous opioid overdose deaths and deaths in recent blizzards and floods.

“Through all of this, Harford County citizens have proven to me that love always wins, so God bless you and thank you for having us,” Glassman said.

Legislative address

Council President Patrick Vincenti was elected to his first term leading the County Council last November. He delivered his first legislative address Tuesday after Glassman’s speech.

“We as a council look forward to a highly productive working relationship with you and your administration,” he told the county executive. “We are committed to working diligently to serve all of the citizens of Harford County.”

Vincenti described the council’s multiple duties as the legislative branch of the county government and the mandate in the county charter to be a “check and balance” on the executive branch — the county executive and their administration.

He also introduced his six colleagues on the council and discussed the diverse backgrounds they bring to the body, plus he thanked council staff members for their support.

Vincenti touched on priorities for the next year including “more open dialogue” with the superintendent and school board on the HCPS budget and ensuring school safety, supporting local law enforcement and fire and EMS. He talked about working with health officials to tackle the ongoing opioid crisis and deter youths from making self-destructive decisions, working with Aberdeen Proving Ground and other public and private entities to promote economic development with an emphasis on the Route 40 corridor, while preserving rural areas at the same time.

“We recognize that every decision we make directly affects all citizens of Harford County and do not take this responsibility lightly,” Vincenti said.

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