On an evening when they decided to pay more than $7 million to preserve farmland and to borrow $37 million to upgrade a sewer plant, Harford County Council members had their most heated debate about an issue that has cost the county $3,500 since 1990.
The argument Tuesday night centered on whether the county should keep a law that requires it to reimburse farmers for livestock killed by dogs or other predators.
All seven council members seemed to agree that the principle -- not money -- was the issue.
A farmer led the debate on each side of the issue.
Councilman Robert S. Wagner, a Bel Air cattle farmer, believes that the compensation law has made the county an insurance company for farmers. Now that the state no longer requires the law, he says, the county should do away with it.
But Councilman Barry T. Glassman, who raises a small herd of sheep, believes that doing away with the payments would send the wrong message, especially since the program doesn't cost much.
Councilman Mitch Shank and Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton sided with Mr. Glassman, Council President Joanne S. Parrott and Councilman Mark S. Decker with Mr. Wagner. Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith said she is leaning toward Mr. Wagner's argument.
"It's just one more thing on the books that doesn't appear to make much sense," Ms. Chenowith said. "I think it's quite antiquated. . . . I talked with several of the farmers. They don't look at [repealing the law] as a big deal."
To be eligible for funds, a farmer must report the death of his animal by a dog or other predator to the Sheriff's Department. Deputies photograph the corpse and take a report.
Then, the farmer must obtain three opinions on the worth of the animal. Eventually, the farmer comes before the council to seek reimbursement. The county budgets $7,500 a year for the
program, but never has come close to spending that much.
Mr. Wagner said the county never can be certain how an animal died -- and can't track down a dog owner to seek reimbursement.
All the council gets to see are photographs of the dead animals with bite marks. "Those same bite marks would occur if the animal died of natural causes" and predators came by later to feast on it, Mr. Wagner said.
While acknowledging the difficulty of catching dogs that kill livestock, Mr. Glassman said the program is fair because it's funded directly through dog license fees.
"It does not come from the county's general fund," he said.
At one point, Mr. Wagner noted that farmers would not be left without options if the law were repealed.
"You do have the option available to you to shoot that dog," he said. "That would get rid of the problem quickly."
Mr. Glassman countered that "as far as shooting the dogs, it's tough. They usually hit you at night."
The council may take further action at its meeting Tuesday night.
In other action last week, the council:
* Gave its approval for the county to apply for a $2 million state low-interest loan to help a Catonsville company build a 40,000-square-foot industrial building at the Higher Education and Applied Technology center near Aberdeen.
* Passed a resolution authorizing an appeal of a recent federal court ruling that the county's adult book store licensing law is unconstitutional. The council wants the case taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.
* Agreed to pay more than $7 million to put 2,800 acres of farmland in the county's agricultural preservation program. The county will pay the money to the 10 landowners over a 20-year period.