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Harkins departs proud of his work

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If things go as planned, Harford County will have a new county executive next week.

County workers need not worry: Their paychecks are safe and will arrive on schedule two days later.

That was not the case when James M. Harkins took over as county executive in December 1998. Harkins remembers county Treasurer Jim Jewell saying he would not be able to make payroll at the end of the week.

The Republican county executive recalled how he scrambled to shift funds so workers could be paid. He reflected on that hectic first week recently as he began boxing up his third-floor office belongings in preparation for his move to a new job in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration.

The former deputy sheriff's parting words to voters who elected him twice: "I think I'm leaving the county in better shape than I found it. History will answer that."

But some County Council members have criticized Harkins, saying he ended his tenure by going on an ill-advised spending spree.

"He comes up with this big fat budget that gives everybody everything they wanted, and now he's leaving town," Dion F. Guthrie, the lone Democrat on the council, said when he first learned that Harkins would be taking the job with Maryland Environmental Service. "It's up to the next guy to figure out how to pay for things."

Council President Robert S. Wagner worries that such an increase in spending during good economic times could cause financial problems in the years ahead.

"I've been through the good times and the bad times," he said recently. "That's why I took a conservative approach this time in dealing with the budget. I know that hard times can come quickly on the heels of good times, and if you are not careful these budget issues can come back and bite you pretty bad."

Wagner fears that Harkins' spending plan for the fiscal year that begins this week could result in tax increases in the future.

Harkins announced May 25 that he would leave office 16 months early to take a job as director of MES, an independent quasi-state agency that operates dozens of water and wastewater plants around the state.

On July 5, the County Council is expected to vote to appoint a new executive from a list of seven candidates announced last week. The successor will take office the next day.

Looking back on seven years in office, Harkins says he is most proud of the financial stability he brought to the county, along with the start of construction of the Patterson Mill school complex.

Job-growth leader

He oversaw the economic boom that resulted in Harford leading the state in job growth last year, as well as four upgrades to the county's bond rating. He vetoed a bill that would have let voters determine whether the council should have the authority to hire an independent auditor to oversee financial operations.

Harkins was on duty when a county worker walked off with more than $100,000 in computer equipment from the county's administration building.

The revitalization of the U.S. 40 corridor moved forward during his tenure.

Harford Community College came up short in its attempt to add a four-year degree to address a shortage of teachers, but the Science and Math Academy opened at Aberdeen High.

"My proudest accomplishment was the start of construction of Patterson Mill," he said of the $59 million middle and high school complex about three miles south of Bel Air. Workers broke ground on the project this month.

Of fiscal matters, he said: "The next county executive will have a wonderful experience compared to what I had."

Finances have improved significantly, he said, noting the four bond-rating increases.

When Standard & Poor's Corp. boosted the county rating to AA-plus last year, it put Harford in the top 75 counties in the nation.

"I'm very proud of that," he said. "It is the best unit of measurement on how well you run your ship."

He predicted that by next year the county would obtain a triple-A rating, the bond industry's gold star of creditworthiness.

Newfound wealth

A key area for bond-rating agencies is job growth, and Harford has been able to impress them.

Much of the county's newfound wealth stems from leading Maryland in job growth last year.

Last year Harford posted a 6.7 percent increase in jobs, many of which were in technology fields and pay $70,000 or more a year. The percentage increase equated to 4,713 new jobs.

Harkins said the increase in revenue from the job growth is helping pay for Patterson Mill as well as the 162 additional teachers and 20 additional sheriff's deputies included in next year's budget. For the first time in Harford history, the school board's proposed budget was fully funded.

Farmers were not left out of the equation.

"Farming is still a major industry in this county," Harkins said. "From the beginning we decided that it was good to preserve farmland, but if we didn't do something to preserve the farmers, it would all go for naught.

"We decided the best way to preserve farmland was to help make farms more profitable," he said. To accomplish this, the county changed the zoning laws to allow farmers to take on new lines of business on their farms to supplement their income.

"It allowed farmers to do such things as run school buses, set up a welding shop to do repairs, use their trucks to haul sand and gravel, and put a backhoe on their tractor and start a backhoe service," Harkins said. "But they still had to generate the majority of their sales from the farming operation."

It seems to have helped.

Harford has 38,655 acres of preserved farmland. "We're in the top 10 counties in the nation," Harkins said.

Development along U.S. 40

He saw the continued revitalization of U.S. 40 as another achievement.

"We tried to channel development and redevelopment into that part of the county, but who would have imagined seven years ago that we would be standing on Route 40 celebrating the most renowned championship in women's golf?" he said of Havre de Grace playing host to the LPGA Championship this month. "Who would have imagined that townhouses along Route 40 would be selling for more than a half-million dollars and selling like hotcakes?"

Now that Harkins is off to Annapolis, would he consider seeking elected office in the future?

"Gee, that's a question I can't answer right now," he said. "I don't want to rule it out. One of the things I've learned in this job is to never say never."

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