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Harford's New Budget


There's an easy way to cut any budget; simply spend less. How to do it is always the difficulty.

Harford County Councilman Robert Wagner says the proposed $163 million budget for fiscal year 1994 could be cut by 8 percent because that's the way it was a year ago -- when county workers went without a raise for a second year. That fiscally conservative view may appeal to some, but it stops short of reality and county needs. Mr. Wagner, who is short on details, should know better.

In fact, a number of his colleagues are lining up to increase spending for schools and to pry loose some of the $8 million cash reserves, or fund balance, that County Executive Eileen Rehrmann is hoarding to reinforce a solid county credit rating and to guard against a rainy day.

The 1994 budget doesn't have many frills, but it does come through with 3 percent raises for county and school board employees and picks up the Social Security payments for employees formerly borne by the state. Layoffs will be avoided, a few new jobs created for the sheriff and county jail.

Schools take the lion's share of operating money, $86.8 million, or $11 million more than this year. With two new schools opening and 1,100 more pupils expected this fall, there is a real need: the budget increase will mostly fund employee raises and Social Security taxes.

Superintendent Ray Keech wants more money, insisting his priority demand is for more teachers. Why, then, is he asking for more administrators, headquarters computer systems and a premium-pay volunteers coordinator? If the council restores school budget cuts, they should be used for new teachers and the worthwhile alternative (night school) education project; Harford's reputation for frugal spending on education is in no danger.

Council President Jeffrey Wilson suggests tapping the new 1 percent real estate transfer tax to augment the school system's operating budget. That's a dangerous precedent, since the tax is earmarked for school construction.

Mrs. Rehrmann merits credit for wise planning to meet growth-related problems, the uncertain economy and state aid cuts. The reserve fund (and an underestimation of revenues) came in handy last year. But renewed economic growth in Harford has been the main helper in easing the burden.

The county executive is loath to raise the property tax rate, a stable $2.73, or to raise the piggyback income tax. Given that stand, the 1994 budget prudently provides for Harford's needs.

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