Rehrmann Redux: Post-Victory Budget


The proposed Harford County budget for fiscal year 1996 (which begins July 1) evokes a few memories for those who follow such things.

Four years ago, newly elected County Executive Eileen Rehrmann froze the budget to account for expected shortages in revenues.

This year, newly re-elected County Executive Rehrmann is doing virtually the same thing, with a minuscule increase of less than 1 percent in the operating budget.

Two years ago, the County Council and the executive went to the mat on her projections of budget needs for the solid waste fund. The council wanted to spend the solid waste subsidy on schools. The executive vetoed that move on grounds that it illegally tampered with a "revenue estimate" for the landfill/recycling operations.

This year, Mrs. Rehrmann has cut the solid waste budget $3.5 million. She will, naturally, use the money for the education budget.

County workers won't get a raise next year (as Mrs. Rehrmann decreed in 1991 and 1992). Instead, they'll get a 1 percent bonus halfway through the year; it won't be added to their base salaries, however.

They got a 3 percent raise last year, in the pre-election budget. That was part of the $14 million jump in budget spending for 1994-95.

This coming year's budget provides more money for schools and for the sheriff's department: 35 additional teachers and 9 more deputies for patrol duties.

Both are badly needed. But the number of new teachers is no more than a minimum effort by former school teacher Rehrmann, scarcely one more instructor for every 35 kids or so who will enter the county system this fall.

Meantime, the administration will continue to hold out more than $8 million from the budget in its unappropriated "fund balance" to maintain the county's credit rating.

Revenues will grow by less than 3 percent -- about the same as the national rate of inflation -- which dictates a tight budget. Unlike other counties that see pressing needs un der similar economic circumstances, Harford is not going to raise its property tax rate ($2.73 per $100 of assessed value) or its piggyback income tax (50 percent).

Seven rules for tourism tax

One revenue item that doesn't appear in the new county budget is money from a room tax on Harford hotels and motels. As this column was written, the General Assembly was poised to give the county approval to collect up to 3 percent of the room rate to promote tourism.

But it will be up to the County Council to enact the legislation and resolve the major questions. These include setting the tax rate and its division between county and the municipalities. Another sticking point is earmarking the county's share for specific municipal projects instead of for general tourism promotion.

The tax couldn't be adopted and put into effect, or be collected, until after the July 1 start of the new budget, Mrs. Rehrmann noted. Any such revenues could be included in a supplementary budget during the fiscal year. Since she is pushing for a quasi-private commission to administer an expanded county tourism program, the executive hopes the taxes would be channeled through that body, which has yet to be authorized by the County Council.

While on that subject, some basic points should be central to the discussion of the tax.

First, it should not be a ruse to channel most of the money to the municipalities. It should be a true countywide tax for countywide promotion, which would certainly include the attractions of the towns.

Second, the needs of the fund should be well-defined and based on economic development principles, instead of local ego-stroking and bureaucracy building. That could well mean setting the tax at less than the maximum allowable 3 percent.

Third, Harford needs genuine tourist attractions that will attract overnight visitors, especially if it hopes to justify the levy on county hotels and not on other beneficiaries of tourism, from restaurants to T-shirt shops.

Fourth, most out-of-town, overnight visitors to Harford are not tourists. They are business travelers on fixed expenses (tightened every year by the Internal Revenue Service) and are mainly concerned about getting back to their homes, or the next business appointment, when the work is done here.

Fifth, tourists who plan multi-day trips to this area will be drawn to downtown Baltimore, where the historic and amusement attractions are concentrated. Harford's main hope is to promote itself as the preferable, quiet "bedroom" community for these tourists. That will involve lots of work on convenient shuttle services, tour agency cultivation and effective regional promotion/cooperation. (Warning: Baltimore County is already looking at this role for its tourism promotion.)

Sixth, Harford is not the only county in Maryland without a local room tax. Let those who have repeatedly made this misstatement on the issue check their facts. More importantly, the real question is not whether all the others do it, but whether it is right for Harford (and its dependence on government-con tract overnight visitors).

Seventh, the room tax should give Harford a source of funds outside the tight general budget to do a much better job of tourism promotion. But if the initial effort succeeds in expanding visitor traffic to Harford, businesses other than hostelries should be required to contribute.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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