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Town meeting audience decries lack of funds for county services


Money, or rather the lack of it at the state and county levels, dominated the conversations at Harford County Executive Eileen Rehrmann's town meeting Thursday night.

Delores Knopp, whose family owns a dairy farm, told Mrs. Rehrmann her family's plans to sell the state easements fell by the wayside when the state pulled money from its agricultural preservation program to help balance Maryland's budget.

Mrs. Knopp asked about a rural preservation program the county has proposed that would offer farmers financial options to discourage them from selling land to developers.

"The state guaranteed the money, and then they didn't come through," she said. "How do we know Harford County won't do the same thing?"

James M. Jewell, the county treasurer, fielded that question quickly: "Harford County is not the state of Maryland."

Under one option being considered, he said, the county would buy the easements and give farmers interest payments over 20 years. The county would ensure in the first year of the program that it had enough money to make interest payments and the final payment on the easement after 20 years, Mr. Jewell said.

Another difference is that unlike the state, Harford has a $13.7 million surplus.

But Mrs. Rehrmann and Mr. Jewell say they want to set some of that money aside, about $7.1 million, to preserve the county's good bond rating.

About $2.3 million more is already committed to projects or otherwise encumbered.

That leaves more than $4.2 million that can be used to help make up for state budget cuts.

Mrs. Rehrmann has said she will not offset the cuts -- potentially $7.7 million -- but will shore up programs where she can.

Ann Marie Lane, a special education teacher, argued that the county should spend more money on education.

"This is not a poor county, but we're 22nd in spending among 24 subdivisions," she said. "Once upon a time we were 14th. That's quite a drop."

In the 1990-1991 school year, Harford spent $4,858 per student. Montgomery County spent $7,591 per student, the most of all 24 Maryland subdivisions. The average per-pupil spending in the state is $5,815, the state Board of Education reports.

"The state increased the money it sent to Harford for education by 11 percent this year, the county by only 4 percent," said Ms. Lane, one of about a dozen people who spoke to the executive.

"Even in these hard times, the state is trying to make an effort. If this is supposed to be a rainy day fund, I'd suggest you look outside, because some of us think it's pouring out there."

But Mrs. Rehrmann responded that "The rainy days aren't over.

"If we use the umbrella and the wind changes direction and blows it away, we'll be left with nothing to protect us," the executive said. "If we must rely on that surplus, we have to manage that savings as carefully as we manage our budget. Last year we waited until the end of the year to use the surplus."

The budget woes, however, did not deter North Harford High School senior Andy Read from asking the executive for money to pay for a new project.

Students there are trying to help preserve Kilgor's Falls, which is about 40 minutes by foot from the school.

"It's not a hangout, but it's a recreational place. The problem is it's private property, and it's for sale," said Mr. Read.

He and his fellow students are working to help a conservancy group buy the land, at an asking price of more than $100,000, so it will not be sold for development.

"We thought we would try to raise $1,000, and we'd challenge the other high schools to raise $1,000 each," he told Mrs. Rehrmann. "That would be $10,000 toward the additional $50,000 that's needed, and we were wondering if the county could help with the rest?"

She said county parks and recreation officials would look into it.

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