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Harford County owes more, but so do others

Per capita borrowing by Harford County government has more than doubled in the past decade. Above, the color guard stands at attention during the November dedication of the county's new Department of Emergency Services building in Hickory.
Per capita borrowing by Harford County government has more than doubled in the past decade. Above, the color guard stands at attention during the November dedication of the county's new Department of Emergency Services building in Hickory. (Courtesy of Bob Thomas, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County government's borrowing increased by more than $2,000 for each resident in the past decade, as long-term debt ballooned by more than half a billion dollars to build new schools and other public buildings.

Harford's residents, however, are by no means the region's most indebted when it comes to the money borrowed by local governments. They owe less than residents of Baltimore and Howard counties and not much more than residents of Cecil County.

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As Harford ramped up spending to build schools, firehouses and other public safety buildings, park facilities and an expanded water treatment plant during the nearly decade-long administration of former county executive David Craig, the amount of per capita county debt rose even faster, a review of the county's comprehensive annual financial reports shows.

One reason for the growth in per capita debt was a relatively stable population that grew at a rate of fewer than 1,000 residents yearly during the Craig administration. The other reason was the high rate of borrowing, increasing by $520 million in the same period.

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As of June 30 this year, the county had outstanding principal and interest on long term debt of $868,899,320, which translates into $3,486.55 for each adult and child resident of the county, with its U.S. Census estimated population of 249,215 in 2013.

The profligate borrowing, which Craig has defended as necessary to keep the county moving forward, has engendered criticism, most prominently from Craig's successor, County Executive Barry Glassman, and from Glassman's top adviser, Billy Boniface, the director of administration-designate.

Despite such criticism, Boniface presided over the Harford County Council for all but Craig's first year and a half in office, and every bond issue approved between 2007 and this year required the council's approval to move forward to sale. Boniface did, however, successfully work to curb what was borrowed in the most recent bond issue sold last winter.

When Craig replaced Jim Harkins as county executive in mid-2005, the county owed $348,275,992 in principal and interest on its long term debt. On a per capita basis, that was $1,439.45 per resident, based on a population of 241,950.

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The comparison is not as black and white, however, as the amount of per capita debt during the period might suggest.

For one thing, it's a lot cheaper to borrow in 2014 — which the county did earlier this year to the tune of $40 million at just over 3 percent interest for 20 years — than it was when Craig's predecessor borrowed nearly $60 million between 2001 and 2002 at rates averaging 4.5 percent.

Much of the county's older debt was refinanced during the Craig administration at rates averaging 2 to 3 percent, according to the annual financial report for fiscal 2014, a significant long term cost saving.

In addition, Harford's credit rating improved during the final years of the Craig administration, which also made borrowing cheaper, be it new debt or refinanced old debt.

And, when looked at in comparison to some other counties with which Harford is frequently compared, per capita debt locally is moderate, relatively speaking.

In Howard County, the per capita debt for each of the 304,580 residents is $5,754.33 in principal and interest on their county's long term debt of $1.436 billion, according to Howard's 2014 comprehensive financial report.

In Baltimore County, per capita county debt stood at $4,692.52 at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, the last year which figures are available. Baltimore County, with an estimated population of 823,015, according to the U.S. Census, owed $3.862 billion in principal and interest.

Cecil County residents owe about $423 more per adult and child than do their neighbors to the south and west in Harford. According to Cecil's 2014 annual financial report, the county's per capita debt was $3,063 based upon $312,211,756 owed and a population of 101,913. Cecil's total debt works out to about 40  percent of what Harford owes.

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