Harford loosens the budget belt


The new budget proposed by Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann provides something for everybody, reflecting not only an improved economy and increased beneficence of the state, but also deferred needs from two years of enforced frugality.

County employees will get a 3 percent cost of living increase after two years of freezes, sheriff's deputies will see pay parity, two new schools will open, two firehouses will be built, and a water treatment plant will start up. The county will also pay $6 million in Social Security taxes formerly funded by the state, plus $1.1 million in added employee health coverage obligations.

The budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 embodies the consistently cautious conservatism of Mrs. Rehrmann, who insists on holding out 5 percent of the annual operating budget each year as a guarantee of Harford's creditworthy status. This time, that fund balance exceeds $8 million (out of $163 million.)

The reserve proved useful last year, when state aid to the counties was drastically slashed. This year, the rigid 5 percent set-aside is more questionable, especially as the administration has underestimated revenues, allowing for a further financial cushion at year's end. With an improving economy, there should be some room for more flexible spending of this fund balance to meet today's needs.

Increased funding for education is such a need -- if money is used to hire more classroom teachers, to make long delayed repairs to older schools, and to nurture a promising alternative education (night school) program. More administrators should be a much lower priority. (The school system has already saved itself about $350,000 that is in the budget, by subsequently deciding to delay the opening of Church Creek Elementary School until '94.)

The budget calls for increased staffing of the county detention center and the sheriff's office, to handle the increased inmate population and deploy more deputies in the field. Hopefully, the county administration will have assumed full control of the detention center from the sheriff by the time the new budget is effective. It's time for responsibility to accompany the funding.

Holding the property tax rate stable at $2.73 for the 10th straight year, and avoiding the temptation to raise the local piggyback income tax rate, is a further sign that Harford's finances are in good shape for the future.

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