Calling drugs the most serious threat to the quality of life in Harford County, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann urged holding a summit later this year to "rethink strategies" in the war on drugs and to increase community involvement in the issue.
"It will only be a matter of time before crime increases if we don't aggressively address the drug issue," she said. "Harford County isn't immune to this problem, and we should not think that we are."
Mrs. Rehrmann's comments came Tuesday evening during her annual State of the County address before the County Council.
Noting there is a need for more efforts such as the Neighborhood Watch and community policing programs, she said the summit would bring together neighborhoods, educators, the business community, law enforcement authorities, the justice system and elected officials to explore new approaches and to renew their commitment to fighting drugs.
In addition, she said, she would add $50,000 to the fiscal 1995 budget for a new category of grants for communities and groups that propose innovative approaches to dealing with crime and drug abuse, including intervention and prevention programs for young people. She will also increase funding for community policing. She said later in the week that the summit would likely be scheduled for a Saturday in October.
The reference to the war on drugs was the executive's only negative element in an otherwise upbeat speech. Noting that the county has "weathered the fiscal storm of the '90s," Mrs. Rehrmann painted a favorable picture based more on her three-year track record than on the last year in particular.
She credited "strong fiscal management" for the county's 5 percent unappropriated fund balance and its improved bond rating, which was upgraded to AA from AA-.
The solid credit rating allowed the county to secure some of the lowest bond rates in its history and move forward with water treatment plants and school construction projects, among other things.
The county executive reminded residents that state cuts to the county over the past three years totaled "millions of dollars in shared revenues," and that the county has had to take over from the state Social Security payments for Board of Education, community college and library system employees at an annual price tag of more than $6 million.
Even so, she said, "by working harder and smarter" the county avoided furloughing or laying off any employees, increasing property taxes, increasing the county income tax and cutting county services.
County Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson was far less optimistic in his legislative program speech, delivered at the same council meeting.
Mr. Wilson, who has announced he will not seek re-election in November, described the past four years as a "bittersweet" experience.
He said that while the County Council has adopted some very significant legislation -- including the Forest Conservation Act of 1991 [also known as the "tree bill"], parts of the adequate public facilities law and a rural plan -- it has a long way to go.
He said some of the difficult tasks ahead include the segment of adequate public facilities legislation dealing with highway adequacy.
The council also needs to adopt a straightforward, "easy-to-understand" environmental bill and solid-waste policies that are environmentally sound, he said.
Mr. Wilson criticized the executive for authorizing a payment of $400,000 to the family of William M. Ford before the grand jury determined that the inmate's death was a suicide and for attempting to strip the sheriff's office of law enforcement and detention center authority. He further criticized the administration for "over-taxing" residents by holding $9 million "outside the budget process illegally." And, while revenues continue to exceed expenditures, he said, the government is not keeping up with the county's needs -- for law enforcement officers, for education spending, for books in the libraries, for better housing, for health care.
"We are still behind on facilities and services."
And the state's shifting of the deficit to the counties hasn't helped matters, he noted.
"In short, the counties will increasingly be on their own. We shall have nowhere else to look for help but to ourselves."
More than anything, the council president stressed the need to protect Harford from overdevelopment.
People and businesses are attracted to the county by its rural charm, he said, but "Harford County cannot sustain unending residential growth."
Mrs. Rehrmann noted that 1,200 new jobs have been created in Harford in the past three years by businesses making more than $393 million in capital investments in the county.