County budget holds line

The Baltimore Sun

Harford County Executive David R. Craig has proposed an $895.8 million budget for fiscal 2009 that addresses declining revenues with no jump in taxes and the smallest increase in spending in the past 10 years.

"There is no tax increase and no increases in fees of any kind," Craig said.

He detailed "the outside events" that have affected Harford's financial outlook, most notably the $11.5 million in cuts made during the General Assembly's special session in November, as well as the faltering national and state economies. The continuing downtown in the housing industry has led to decreased revenues in transfer and recordation taxes and impact fees.

"The only increases we have seen have been in foreclosures," Craig said. "Housing starts are still in decline. It will be a fair amount of time before we get back on an even keel."

Craig called for fiscal conservatism as all county departments prepared budget requests, stressing he would not raise taxes and insisting staff work within projected revenues. The proposed operating budget is at $616,008,031, with only a minimal increase from last year, and the capital budget is at $279,813,330. The total is about $34 million less than the 2008 fiscal year, for a 3.7 percent decrease overall.

"We saw the handwriting on the wall and came in with a conservative budget," Craig said.

Still, the proposal makes room for a 9 percent pay increase for the county's nearly 1,300 employees and includes salary upgrades for police, teachers and emergency workers.

"We have to put our employees first," Craig said.

Those pay increases are likely to dominate the budget discussions at the County Council's work sessions throughout the month.

"A big part of this budget is salary increases," said Council President Billy Boniface, who asked for the county's recent pay classification study and details on "how wages are affecting our ability to provide services."

Scott Gibson, head of the county's Human Resources Department, is scheduled for a 20-minute presentation to the council Tuesday. At the first work session Thursday, Boniface told Gibson, "You will be here a lot longer than 20 minutes."

As a result of the employment study, county employees who meet expectations on their evaluations would receive a 3 percent merit raise, as well as a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment and a 3 percent market adjustment to their salaries.

"Our salaries need to be competitive," said Robert B. Thomas, county spokesman. "This increase puts us about middle of the pack in the metro area."

Nearly 40 percent of the job offers the county extended since July 1 were rejected, most often for salary, Gibson said. Only 18 percent of those who left the county's employ in the same period retired -- most of the rest quit. More than half of those who resigned had worked less than a year, he said.

The county is also finding it difficult to attract viable candidates. When the water treatment plant needed a chemist -- a position critical to public health -- Gibson had to post the job three times before he found a suitable candidate.

"This all paints a troubling picture for the county," he said. "As a taxpayer, I understand the skepticism about raises, but we cannot maintain low salaries and sacrifice on services we deliver."

Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said he also pushed for improved compensation and more staff. He received $2 million for 10 new deputies, two administrators and 47 police cars, in the proposal, saying, "The executive was fair as he could be with my budget."

In fiscal 2008, deputies received a 16 percent raise depending on their rank and tenure. This year, the proposal would give employees of the Sheriff's Office 3 percent cost-of-living and 3 percent step increases.

"Even though they got a new pay plan last year, you have to provide increases to stay up with your competitors in this day, when it's difficult to get qualified law enforcement and corrections officers," said Bane, who wants to stay competitive with deputies in Baltimore County and the city.

Employees of the county public schools also would get a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment and a 3 percent merit raise.

Nearly half the operating budget would go to the Harford County Board of Education, and 44 percent of the county's capital budget would fund 24 school construction and renovation projects. The school system had sought a $27.8 million increase over its 2008 operating budget. Craig's proposal calls for an increase of $11.3 million.

The council began its budget discussions Thursday and will continue meeting with all the departments. The budget takes effect July 1.

Sun reporter Madison Park contributed to this article.

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