$200,000 budget shift questioned Dispute mars budget approval

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the end, after two months of bickering between the Harford executive and the council president over a $163 million budget, the irreconcilable differences came down to $200,000.

The county administration cried foul about an "illegal budget" violating the county charter before the council even gave the spending blueprint its final blessing Thursday night.

That's ridiculous, said the County Council president, Jeffrey D. Wilson. The administration, he said, is just red-faced because council members refused to "rubber stamp" Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's budget.

"We did not pass an illegal budget," Mr. Wilson said after the meeting. "The administration is

prepared to say anything to justify its ridiculous position. They have painted themselves into a corner, and now there is no way out but to spread falsehoods."

The dispute centers on the council's 4-3 vote to shift $200,000 from a solid waste fund to education. Mrs. Rehrmann's budget included $4.7 million to cover an anticipated shortfall in the fund -- which Mr. Wilson said she exaggerated by about $200,000.

Under the county charter, the council can increase education spending by cutting any other departments but cannot tamper with the executive's revenue estimates, which the administration said in

cludes estimated shortfalls.

But Mr. Wilson and Barry T. Glassman, R-District D, Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, and Susan Heselton, R-District A, argued that appropriations differ from revenue estimates.

Larry Klimovitz, director of administration, and the county's other administration representatives left the meeting abruptly, refusing to answer reporters' questions.

Mrs. Rehrmann did not attend the Thursday night meeting, was out of town Friday and could not be reached.

Mr. Klimovitz would say only that the budget was illegal and that the county administration would meet with its lawyers to decide its next step.

"The $200,000 is not the point. The council has to follow the charter," George Harrison, county spokesman, said Friday.

"The council wants to force Mrs. Rehrmann to make up that money but budgets just don't work that way."

Unless Mrs. Rehrmann vetoes the entire budget or resorts to a line-item veto, the budget automatically becomes law July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year. The council would need five votes to override an executive veto.

Budget includes pay raises

The dispute over shifting the $200,000 notwithstanding, Mrs. Rehrmann's $163 million spending blueprint emerged virtually unscathed.

The budget increases spending nearly 10 percent, from the current $148.2 million. It gives raises to 5,000 county employees and maintains the current property tax rate at $2.73 per $100 of assessed value outside the incorporated cities of Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

The $6.6 million salary package will give all county employees, including teachers, 3 percent across-the-board raises, their first in three years, and will include merit increases for some.

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 upgrade 11 elementary assistant principals, who teach half-time, into full-time administrators.

At Mrs. Rehrmann's request, the council also restored another estimated $300,000 she had cut for education, by trimming other departments. The money will go toward hiring 20 elementary school teachers.

The executive's proposed spending blueprint had included $87 million for education, about $4.4 million less than the school system requested.

Schools' needs and how much of a financial cushion the county should keep on hand have been continual sources of contention between the administration and some council members, chiefly Mr. Wilson.

Mrs. Rehrmann maintains it is vital to keep a reserve of more than $8.2 million to maintain the county's bond rating and to weather possible state spending cutbacks or an economic downturn.

While a majority, four council members, voted to shift the $200,000, the remaining three -- Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, Philip J. Barker, D-District F, and Joanne S. Parrott, R-District B -- sided with the administration.

The vote seemed to have less to do with moving $200,000 than with the control of the county purse strings and how much money should be reserved. "On the administration side," Mr. Wilson said flatly, "this is an issue of control."

But Mr. Wagner, like administration officials, countered that the

council overstepped its bounds by shifting the money.

"I am appalled. I am beside myself," he said. "The charter is very clear that the council cannot take money out of revenue estimates."

Mr. Wagner also vigorously opposed the council's 4-3 decision to cut $50,000 from the $4.7 million set aside to pay for the detention center's expansion.

"That project is long overdue," he said. "This cut could delay it. The deal was cut, and the money was on the way from the state," he added, noting that the state agreed to match the county's funds for the expansion.

Priority given to education

All the council members agreed that finding the $250,000 to upgrade 11 part-time assistant principals to full-time was a priority, Mr. Wagner said.

But, he added, "I'm not satisfied with the budget. I'm dissatisfied where that $250,000 is coming from."

William T. Baker Jr., public works director, pleaded with the council to avoid cutting the $200,000 from the solid waste fund. The move, he said, would imperil the county's recycling program and halt the printing and distribution of brochures on recycling and programs to educate school children. Worse, he said, it could lead to the shutdown of landfills if equipment broke down and the county lacked money to replace it.

Mr. Glassman told Mr. Baker not to worry. "I'm sure the executive will find the money to keep the landfill open," he said.

Mrs. Pierno agreed. She said it was foolish to worry about $200,000 when the county has a surplus of more than $8.2 million.

"It is very important that the council assert its authority to [shift the $200,000 to schools]," she said. "We are equal partners in the budget process.

"Mrs. Rehrmann routinely underestimates revenues, holding millions outside the budget while children sit in classrooms that are overcrowded, not heated and where the equipment is antiquated."

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