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Harford County Council tries for leaner budget

The Baltimore Sun

Harford County Executive David R. Craig met with the County Council last night and painted a bleak revenue outlook that will dominate the remainder of the fiscal year and continue well into the next.

The session followed daylong meetings Monday with all his department heads to "discuss options to make sure we have cash flow," Craig said.

Tomorrow is the deadline for each county agency to submit a plan for cutting 5 percent of its current operating budget. Craig also established a personnel action oversight committee, which will review each vacancy to decide whether it will be filled. All expenditures will be reviewed, he said.

"We're doing the same thing citizens are doing in their homes and businesses," Craig said. "We will continue providing services, but we may be trimming. The county remains open for business."

The housing downturn has hit Harford particularly hard, and decreased income from the real estate transfer tax and impact fees has created budget shortfalls. Officials have remarked that most county revenue from the housing market is coming from foreclosure fees.

"Revenue is significantly off now," said Council President Billy Boniface. "There are some things that we have signed off on already that we may not be able to fund."

Craig unveiled an efficiency report Monday that offered several cost-cutting options, including streamlining agencies and reducing overtime, employee travel and the use of take-home vehicles.

The council enacted a $900 million budget for fiscal year 2009 that included a 9 percent pay raise for county employees. Still, Councilman James V. McMahan called it frugal with an eye on the future.

"We cut considerably, knowing that nobody has the slightest idea how bad this is going to be," he said. "To weather this storm, we have to look at realistic belt tightening. We have to seriously look at more reductions and at least a hiring freeze. The next budget cycle is going to be brutal."

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