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Harford deputies' union head suggests tax increase, but county exec says it's 'a last resort'

Mike Montalvo, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union, has suggested the county consider a tax increase to help pay for the school system's budget and other needs.
Mike Montalvo, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union, has suggested the county consider a tax increase to help pay for the school system's budget and other needs. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Mike Montalvo, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff’s Union, suggests that Harford County officials consider raising taxes as local school officials seek greater funding and the cost of living, providing services and salaries for other county workers keeps growing.

Montalvo leads a union that represents more than 300 active and retired law enforcement deputies with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office — corrections deputies have a separate union. He made the suggestion, which he acknowledged “might be an unpopular idea, for sure,” during the citizen comment portion of a Harford County Council meeting Tuesday night in Bel Air.

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His comments were seen on a video recording of the council meeting on the county website this week.

Montalvo noted costs of living and costs of services continue to increase. Plus, he said, County Executive Barry Glassman has provided annual raises for teachers, deputies and county employees during his first term and has set a goal of continuing those increases, as teachers and deputies receive contractually-obligated steps, or salary increases, each year.

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“Our [union] members are on track to improve our salaries for the first time in years,” he said.

Several residents said they would be willing to pay increased taxes if it means keeping more teachers, but Glassman said he’s “reluctant” to go that route,

Montalvo started his remarks with comments on a recent push by Harford County Public Schools administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students to increase county funding for schools and avoid the cutting of more than 150 positions to balance next year’s HCPS operating budget.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, in his fifth annual State of the County Address, highlighted prior successes that have left the county on better financial footing than when he came into office in 2014, but he also urged fiscal discipline ahead of potential national economic slowdowns.

Superintendent Sean Bulson’s proposed budget came with a request to increase funding for fiscal 2020 by $10 million, even with the proposed position cuts. The Board of Education pushed that increase to $15 million Tuesday when it approved a budget request of $472.7 million for operations.

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The county and state provide the largest share of revenues for HCPS, and the school board must reconcile their request in June once the county and state have approved their respective budgets in the spring.

The County Council, which sets local tax rates and approves the county budget each year, could increase funding for schools but only by taking funds from other departments or raising taxes.

Montalvo said he does not “100 percent disagree” that schools need more funding, but to do that could harm other county departments and services.

He said it seems, as “an outsider looking in,” that there is a “mentality . . . that there is this bottomless pit of money from the county to draw from, and that’s just not the case.”

Montalvo noted the idea of raising taxes is unpopular, but asked, in light of multiple needs for more funding and to avoid harming other county services, “is it time to consider a tax increase to fund these things?”

He reiterated comments that he has made in the past that “we can’t continue to pay for things with revenues that are 10 or 15 years old.”

Montalvo said, in a follow-up conversation Thursday, that he spoke with another citizen at the council meeting, after his remarks, and that person supported his suggestion of a tax increase.

“I mentioned the need to possibly raise taxes because, in general, the cost of doing business continues to rise and it seems we as a county find ourselves in this position every year,” he wrote in a text message.

They were among the 21 people who offered comments on Harford County’s budget for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins July 1, during Harford County Executive Barry Glassman’s hearing Thursday night at Harford Community College.

Montalvo said Glassman and his administration “have done a great job with the budget over the last four years and have made salaries a priority, but rising health care costs are outside of their control.”

“It just doesn’t seem like we can sustain the level of services our citizens expect and deserve without making a change,” he added.

Montalvo said he understands the ramifications of a tax increase, such as for residents who have fixed incomes.

“There is no easy fix, and while I am very pleased with the progress that has been made, I’d hate to see us start sliding in the other direction,” he stated, referring to a return to the years when deputies and teachers had salary freezes, did not get their steps and fell behind their colleagues in other jurisdictions.

County executive responds

Glassman said “a tax increase would be a last resort,” especially this year in light of looming ramifications of the state’s Kirwan Commission.

The commission’s recommendations on school funding are estimated to cost $4 billion statewide, about half of which will be the responsibility of the counties.

If the county has to pay for part of implementing the Kirwan recommendations, Glassman said it will be hard to avoid a tax increase.

“It’s almost a guaranteed tax increase, so I’ve got to leave a little cushion there,” Glassman said Thursday. “That’s why I’m reluctant to even look at raising taxes right now.”

One cent on the county tax rate generates about $2.8 million in revenue, he said.

Harford ranks fifth in the state with a property tax rate of $1.042 for every $100 of assessed value.

Its income tax rate, of 3.06 percent, ranks ninth in Maryland, Glassman said. The state cap on income tax rate is $3.2 percent. If the county raised the tax rate to the maximum, it would generate an additional $10 million in revenue.

Glassman is still developing the county budget for fiscal 2020, which he must submit to the council in April. He said the county could bring in $15 to $18 million in “new revenue” next year, and the $10 million increase requested by the school superintendent would eat into most of that new revenue.

He said he has also set a goal next year for salary increases for the school system, deputies and general government employees, which also affects the new revenue.

“We have a pretty tight budget, so when you cut somewhere to give to the [schools], it takes out of the pot of money for the general government side of the ledger, and it does impact services,” Glassman said.

Glassman was elected to a second term last November, and he has spoken at length in recent months about how he was able to put the county on solid financial footing during his first term without raising taxes.

He said Thursday that the county has controlled costs by managing its expenses, not adding positions, outsourcing some services and sharing costs — he noted employee health care costs are expected to increase by $4 million next year, and he plans to have the local government absorb half of the cost while employees absorb the other half.

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Glassman said Harford can also improve its income and property tax revenue with increased economic development.

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“We have a conservative, prudent approach to not spending more than we take in, and that’s what I’m sticking to because it does protect the county taxpayer,” he said. “It also requires us, and the school board, to operate more efficiently.”

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