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2008 budget plan jumps 32 percent

The Baltimore Sun

Harford County Executive David R. Craig proposed a $980 million spending plan yesterday that includes more money for the sheriff's office and volunteer fire companies but offers less than half of what the school system had requested.

Craig's total budget includes an unprecedented $370 million for capital projects, including school construction, expansion of a water treatment plant and increased capacity at a waste disposal plant. The figure is nearly double what Harford budgeted for capital items for the current year.

Overall spending, fueled by the jump in capital projects, would soar 32 percent over this year's budget.

"This is our showing that we're willing to forward-fund schools and that we're willing to take on issues to reduce overcrowding and get rid of portable classrooms, and we're willing to do that before [military growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground] ever starts," said Craig, a Republican.

With expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground looming in the coming years, Craig pledged during his campaign last year to ramp up construction on sorely needed facilities. Government spending, however, essentially remains static in the new budget, with department heads being asked to hold the line on costs.

The budget contains no change in taxes.

The Harford school board abruptly canceled a meeting Wednesday after receiving advance word of the steep cut to its budget request. School officials, who were seeking $21 million more from the county, would receive about $8.3 million more than this year.

"The amount was nothing near what we expected," board President Mark M. Wolkow said Wednesday. "It means we really have to cut back."

Craig argued that the school system received more than it had been expecting from the state and should still be able to fund crucial initiatives, such as staffing for a new middle and high school complex and increases for special education. More than $100 million of the capital budget is to be used for building or expanding schools.

"My own personal feeling? They could cut their present budget by 10 percent and still operate efficiently," Craig said.

The county sheriff's office received the largest increase of any agency. Almost all of an about $9 million increase will help fund salary and benefit increases for deputies, which officials said will help recruit and retain deputies. On average, deputies would receive a 16 percent raise, officials said.

"We haven't had a pay restructuring in a long, long time," said Deputy Fred Visnaw, president of the deputies' union, which fought for the increases. "If it goes through, this will be tremendous in helping us hire talented young people who will stay for a long time."

The volunteer fire service would also receive a $2.5 million boost, some of which would be used for staffing the county's busiest fire companies with full-time emergency medical technicians.

The administration's spending plan goes to the County Council today. The council, which can only cut the proposal, will consider revisions before approving a budget.

Harford spending

Fiscal '08 Fiscal '07

Total budget $981 million $743 million

Operating $611 million $556 million

Board of Education $197 million $189 million

Sheriff's Office $61 million $51 million

Capital $370 million* $188 million*Includes $103 million for school construction, $76 million to expand the Abingdon Water Treatment Plant and $60 million to increase capacity at the county waste-to-energy facility.

Source: Harford County Government; figures rounded

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