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Harford executive plans $10.7 million increase in school funding as part of $903.6 million county budget for FY2020

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Harford County Executive Barry Glassman plans a $10.7 million increase in operations funding for Harford County Public Schools next year, part of a $903.6 million total county budget he unveiled Monday morning.

“This is our first budget in the second term, and we continue to set record levels of funding for education and public safety,” Glassman said as he provided an overview of the budget to Aegis staff Monday at the county administration building in Bel Air.

The county executive, who was elected to a second four-year term last November, said his administration is “still holding the line on taxes,” with no increase planned for next year.

The total package, including a $747.6 million operating budget and $155.9 million capital budget, is $1.7 million more than the $901.8 million county budget adopted for the current fiscal year. The Harford County Council must now pass a budget by June 15.

Glassman also proposes $2,000 merit-based “lump sum” salary increases for eligible county government employees — plus those who work for the State’s Attorney’s Office, Circuit Court and civilian Harford County Sheriff’s Office employees — in addition to one step on the salary scale and a 1 percent COLA for Sheriff’s Office law enforcement and corrections deputies.

The county executive plans to spend $1 million on fighting opioid addiction and improving mental health services, including funding to complete construction of treatment rooms at the Harford Crisis Center in Bel Air, as well as a number of capital projects, such as road and bridge repairs, completing the final segment to connect the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail, multiple improvements to school and public safety buildings and equipment and improvements to parks and recreation centers.

In terms of public safety, the budget calls for a 2 percent increase in funding to Harford’s volunteer fire companies, which provide all firefighting and the majority of EMS service in the county, as well as $4.1 million to the Volunteer Fire & EMS Foundation, which provides funding to fire companies to employ paid paramedics to augment their volunteer EMS personnel, and $2.1 million to support the county-run EMS service that now has two surge ambulances with paramedic crews.

Glassman embarked on an initiative several years ago to institute a county-run EMS system as the county’s population continues to increase — and with it the demand for medical services — as the fire companies find it harder to recruit and retain volunteers.

“Our plan is to keep the Foundation as functional as we can to support the fire departments, and when that [time] comes that we have to flip over to a full EMS system, we’ll be ready to do that,” Glassman said.

Education spending

Glassman’s fiscal 2020 budget, which must be approved by the County Council, includes $256.4 million for the public schools. The $10.7 million increase in local funding over the current year, coupled with an anticipated $6.2 million increase in funding from the state, should exceed the $15 million increase sought by the Harford County Board of Education in its budget request for next year.

School officials have stated HCPS could cut close to 200 instructional and administrative positions as it works to balance next year’s operating budget, and parents, teachers, students, administrators and school system supporters have made multiple pleas of the county executive and County Council to fully fund the budget request.

Glassman noted that the total increase could exceed $20 million if school officials seek $3.4 million in grant funds available through the state’s Kirwan Commission thanks to the proposed increase in local funds — the Maryland General Assembly approved earlier this month a bill to provide more than $850 million in extra funds to public schools across the state over two years.

“That state money is really helping us this year,” Glassman said. “I’m appreciative of it.”

Board of Education President Joe Voskuhl explained that when Superintendent Sean Bulson requested $10 million in additional funds from the county in his budget, it meant the school system would not have to cut more than the 179 position reductions in the superintendent’s proposal. The school board increased the request by $5 million to restore up to 70 teaching positions, Voskuhl said Tuesday.

“We will receive more state funds this year than originally expected. If the county does not increase funding from the $10.7 million proposed by the County Executive, the state funding will go toward restoring up to 70 positions that we planned to restore if the county fully funded our budget, at $15 million,” Voskuhl said. “If the county adjusts the budget and fully funds our request at $15 million, we can restore the 70 positions and use the state funding to restore additional positions.”

He said Harford County is “right in the middle of the pack” statewide when it comes to local funding for public schools, and local funding for HCPS compares to state funding at a rate of 2 to 1 — Glassman noted that rate has decreased from 4 to 1.

“I think, over time, I’d like the state to be an equal partner with us on school funding,” he said.

Glassman said $10 million of the county’s increase has been “fenced off” for instructional salary increases, and the remaining $650,000 is meant to support a school system proposal to have school psychologists go from 10-month to 12-month employees so they can keep up with students over summer vacation.

Glassman said he is also fully funding a 2 percent increase in the local allocation to Harford Community College — the allocation totals $17.1 million, according to budget documents posted on the county website.

Salary increases

Glassman said his administration worked with representatives of county government employee associations as they developed the plan for the $2,000 merit-based increase — this is the fifth straight year that Glassman has provided raises to county workers.

About 59 percent of county employees meet or fall below the $61,000 median income for Harford County, Glassman said, so people in that group would see a salary increase of about 4 percent, less for higher earners.

This year is also the first that county leaders negotiated with the two Sheriff’s Office unions, those serving law enforcement and corrections deputies, since collective bargaining legislation was approved during the 2018 Maryland General Assembly session in Annapolis.

Glassman noted that Harford does not have “full-blown collective bargaining” with its deputies’ unions, but the organizations can meet and discuss projected county revenues and the unions’ desires for the coming year.

Billy Boniface, director of administration for the county, said all four employee unions — two for county employees and two for Sheriff’s Office deputies — have been “great to work with this year” as all bargaining units came together with the county to work out matters such as salaries and health care benefits.

Opioid addiction/mental health

Glassman plans to spend $1 million next year to combat opioid addiction, which continues to claim lives in Harford County, and support mental health treatment.

He said $750,000 will be allocated for prevention as well as assistance with addiction recovery, such as continued operation of a 24-hour crisis hotline, training of recovery coaches, referrals to treatment providers, and other forms of support such as referrals to sober living and services to help recovering addicts get their records cleaned up.

Another $250,000 will go to help complete construction of several treatment rooms in the Crisis Center in Bel Air, creating a place where families or first responders can take a person in crisis from addiction or mental health issues and they can receive inpatient treatment.

The state has also provided funds to build the crisis center, which the county is operating in partnership with University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, the health department and community organizations that specialize in addiction and behavioral health issues.

“[The] budget is in line with our AAA-bond rating as we continue to have a strong, fiscally conservative budget along with a realistic CIP [capital improvement plan] that’s affordable over time,” Glassman said.

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