Mistrust in Harford


When times are tough, options are limited. Look at Harford County's $174 million budget that was approved last week by the county council. The size of next fiscal year's spending plan is virtually identical to County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's proposal. Even the main features remain the same: no cut in the property tax rate and no salary increases for county employees.

So what was all the council haggling about? Mostly it was an attempt by the council to show that it is no rubber stamp for the executive. After all, four of the seven council members are newly elected. Moreover, five of the seven are Republicans, whereas the county executive is a Democrat.

In the final vote, Republican Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson was the only member to oppose the compromise document the council hammered out. His main bone of contention was a $6.3 million item. Mrs. Rehrmann wanted this money held out to guarantee a surplus at the end of the new fiscal year. Such a surplus would help the county retain its preferred bond rating, she argued, and provide a fiscal safety net.

"What she is trying to do -- hold money outside the budget -- is explicitly contrary to the charter," Mr. Wilson countered. He sought opinions from two rating agencies. They replied that bond ratings are based on wider fiscal criteria than an undesignated general fund balance. Nevertheless, Standard & Poor's rating officer commented, "I don't understand the need for the county executive to hold funds outside the operating funds, where only she can provide instructions for their use."

Armed with these views, Mr. Wilson pressed on until the final vote.

It would be easy to dismiss this feud merely as a sign of Mr. Wilson's political ambitions. But other council members' recent conduct has shown there is more to this squabbling.

In our view, Mr. Wilson's dissenting vote was a symptom of the Rehrmann administration's credibility problem with the council. We have seen mistrust manifested on several occasions. Currently, a controversy rages over whether the administration deliberately hid information about the financial obligations of James D. Fielder, the newly appointed economic development director. Unless Ms. Rehrmann can forge a more trustful relationship, she is certain to face further heavy weather in dealing with Mr. Wilson and the council.

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