Harford budget adopted over executive's protest


Harford lawmakers have unanimously adopted a $163 million operating budget that increases spending nearly 10 percent, gives 5,000 county employees raises and maintains the current property tax rate.

The vote late Thursday night came after bitter accusations from the county administration that the County Council violated Harford's charter by shifting to education about $200,000 that had been earmarked to cover a projected shortfall in another department's funding.

"The council has the distinction of passing the first illegal budget in the county's history," said Larry Klimovitz, director of administration. He said he did not know whether the county executive would veto or challenge approval of the budget.

The controversy centers on a 4-3 council vote to cut about $200,000 from a fund for solid waste management. Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's budget included $4.7 million to cover an expected shortfall in the fund.

But the council, led by President Jeffrey D. Wilson, claimed that the executive exaggerated the shortfall and that $200,000 could be shifted to education.

The administration's charge angered Mr. Wilson.

"This is not an illegal budget," he said. "Their attitude is, 'How dare the council do anything to the budget but run a rubber stamp over our exalted opinions?' And I'm sick of that attitude."

Under the county charter, the council can increase education spending by cutting elsewhere, but cannot tamper with the executive's revenue estimates. The administration said that the revenue estimate includes estimated shortfalls.

But appropriations are not the same as revenue estimates, argued Mr. Wilson and three other council members -- Barry T. Glassman, R-District D; Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C; and Susan Heselton, R-District A.

The $200,000 the council shifted to education, along with $50,000 cut from a $4.6 million appropriation for expansion of the Harford County Detention Center, will allow for upgrading 11 elementary assistant principals, who teach half-time, to full-time administrators.

At Mrs. Rehrmann's request, the council also restored another $300,000 for education, by cutting other departments, to go toward hiring 20 elementary school teachers.

Mrs. Rehrmann's proposed spending blueprint had included $87 million for education, about $4.4 million less than the board requested.

The operating budget, which increases spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1 from the current $148.2 million to $160 million, includes a $6.6 million salary package. It will give 5,000 county employees, including teachers, 3 percent across-the-board raises, their first in three years. It also includes merit increases for some workers.

The county's property tax remains at $2.73 per $100 of assessed value outside the incorporated cities of Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

Also Thursday, the council unanimously adopted an estimated $100 million capital budget. But two big-ticket items, the Sod Run sewage treatment plant and Whiteford treatment plant sewer lines, hinge on getting $12 million in federal grants.

The construction budget includes about $10 million for school repairs and renovations and $2.3 million to build firehouses in Abingdon and Havre de Grace, expand the firehouse in Fallston and renovate the Fawn Grove station.

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