Education emerges as top fiscal concern


It's early in the budget process, but Harford County Executive James M. Harkins is already warning that money is going to be tight this year and his spending plan for fiscal year 2005 will be "pretty basic without a lot of frills."

The belt-tightening comes as citizens are demanding increased spending to upgrade aging public school buildings in the county to make them safer for students and more conducive to learning.

During what Harkins called a "pre-budget hearing" Thursday night at Joppatowne High School, more than 20 citizens offered their suggestions on how he might spend the county's money in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"We are not here to talk," Harkins told the audience at the start of the session. "We are here to listen and to take notes."

He got an earful over the next hour and a half.

More than 20 people spoke and the vast majority asked, pleaded and begged for more money to be put into the public school system.

Cathy Perseghin of Cedarwood was one of about a dozen speakers to ask Harkins for money to put an air-conditioning system in Bel Air Middle School. She told him that poor air quality in the school has caused mold to grow in the library, which prohibits students with asthma and other allergies from using the facility.

She said temperatures in the cafeteria rise above 100 degrees during spring months.

Although each speaker was allotted three minutes, Robin Testerman of Darlington used just a fraction of her time. "The school budget for the new fiscal year," she said, "should be fully funded."

Schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said, "Please dig deep for the kids of Harford County."

Robert Burman of Whiteford was the only speaker to suggest how the county might save some money. Quoting a report from the Maryland Board of Nursing, he pointed out that the nursing program at Harford Community College was rated at the bottom of the 15 community colleges in the state offering nursing programs.

"Please look into it," he said of the college's poor rating. "Look at it hard."

Burman asked Harkins to provide no additional funding to the nursing program until the school adopts a measure of accountability.

Deb Merlock, a vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, was critical of the county's past spending for education.

"Our children's education is our best investment in our future, not just theirs," she said. "The promise of a quality education, the promise of a future for our children, for each of us, needs to be kept. The current position of this county's budget falls well short of that promise."

During an interview earlier in the day, Harkins said the cut in state funding to the county for fiscal year 2005 would be larger and more painful than last year.

He said he expects about a $5 million cut this year, based on the state budget submitted to the General Assembly last week by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The county lost about $4 million in state funding last year.

"It is going to be very conservative," Harkins said of the proposed budget that he will submit to the County Council in late March or early April. "We are going to have to live within our means."

Harkins said that it is too early to say if any county workers will be laid off or if they will get a pay raise.

He said that when he sits down with his staff to discuss finances, "there will be a high priority on education and public safety."

Harkins got a feel for Harford's financial situation earlier in the week when the governor unveiled his plan for a $23.8 billion spending program.

Legislative analysts have identified about $115 million in cuts to county programs.

Although 13 of Maryland's 24 political subdivisions were forced to boost property or income taxes last year to offset losses of state funds, Harford held the line.

But there was no money for pay raises to county employees, and workers were forced to dig deeper into their pockets to help cover their health insurance costs.

Last year the administration's operating budget totaled $409.8 million, an increase of less than 1 percent.

The school system was awarded $147.3 million for the current year, an increase of slightly more than 8 percent. Harkins said it is too soon to say how much would be designated for schools in the new budget.

With money tight, Harkins said, the county needs to work smarter. As an example, he said, while hundreds of new homes have been added to the county's water and sewerage system in recent years, the department has not hired additional workers. "The people there are working smarter," he said. "They are using electronic equipment to check water meters and they don't need as many workers."

During the public meeting later in the day, Harkins heard from Paul Muccino, a Bel Air-area resident who wants the county to hold the line on property tax increases.

He said that the property assessments for a third of the county rose an average of slightly more than 25 percent, which he said is a hardship for senior citizens on fixed incomes.

Muccino suggested a freeze on property tax increases for retired seniors on fixed income, with adjustments made when the property is sold.

Robert B. Thomas, a school board member who lives in Joppatowne, expressed his frustration over federally ordered programs that lack adequate funding.

He said such situations put a big strain on the school system's finances. As an example, he said, while the federal government is supposed to pay 40 percent of the county's cost of special education for disabled children, it pays only 14 percent.

He said the No Child Left Behind education program initiated by President Bush "was a great concept, but would be a miserable failure, because of a lack of funding to implement the plan.

"We need every dime you can get to support your school system," Thomas told the county executive.

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