Harford council approves $469.9 million budget for 2014

The Harford County Council has approved a 2014 operating budget of $496.9 million, about $2 million higher than what was proposed by County Executive David Craig.

The council approved the new budget Tuesday night, after tacking on more amendments, including funds to improve the weight room at Joppatowne High School and $1 million in bonds toward replacing the buildings at Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.

The council also approved a 2014 real property tax rate of 89.6 cents per $100 of assessed value in the municipalities of Havre de Grace, Bel Air and Aberdeen and a rate of $1.042 for property owners outside of the municipalities.

Those rates are unchanged from 2013. The difference in the two is 14.6 cents per $100 of assessed value property owners outside the municipalities pay to fund the county highway budget. Each municipality imposes its own property taxes to cover various services, including highways maintenance and improvement.

The additional money in the approved budget will come from the county's accumulated surpluses from previous years, also known as fund balances, Budget and Management Research Chief Kim Spence explained.

"For the General and Highways Funds we appropriated more fund balance. For water and sewer fund we appropriated more net assets," Spence said.

The county originally estimated it had $20 million in its fund balance for 2014, she said.

The funds will go toward additional "pay-go" capital improvements for the Aberdeen and Joppatowne High weight rooms, as well as other school improvement projects, including Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air. Another $640,000 is for the county match for a security improvement project in schools.

The new budget also contains the county's first funding commitment, $250,000, toward the Havre de Grace Opera House renovation project.

Education concerns

The council chambers in Bel Air Tuesday night were filled with county school teachers. After the budget had passed, several urged the council to keep overcrowded classrooms, low teacher wages and other school issues in mind, if only for next year.

Council President Billy Boniface reminded the audience that council rules forbade speakers from discussing a bill that was just approved such as the budget, but many teachers or education representatives who spoke didn't exactly toe the line.

Ryan Burbey, head of the Harford County Education Association – the local teachers union, warned the council members again they should be prepared for dire consequences in local education.

He said the county should have a dedicated fund for education just as it does for water, parks and recreation and other services.

"Our fight won't end tonight. It won't end next week. It won't end this summer," Burbey said, telling the council: "Your decisions have consequences and those consequences will unfold very dramatically over the next couple of weeks."

Kathleen Mader, a Havre de Grace High School teacher, told the council teachers can no longer expect a comfortable, middle-class existence and their students are the ones who are suffering.

Mader said students know when programs are cut or when other schools have advantages they do not.

"Good education is a pillar that supports the quality of our community," she said.

Other teachers said they have about 35 students in their classes, which is too many, and noted they have received a "dismal" 1 percent raise in five years.

Difficult process

Councilman Dion Guthrie and Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the budget process was a difficult one and they hoped to address issues such as those raised by the teachers in the future. Both sounded somber notes about the economy.

Guthrie compared the budget to a pizza that seems smaller because it is being cut into eight pieces instead of into quarters.

"Unfortunately, this is probably that type of budget," he said. "Unless something changes in the economy, I don't see a lot of changes coming in next year's budget."

Lisanti thanked the citizens who wrote and e-mailed and testified on the budget.

"One of the most difficult parts of this budget, I think, is our statutory requirement with the Board of Education," she said.

Although teachers might have desired a different result, she continued, "We have rules, regulations and policies that make it very difficult to do that."

Lisanti noted this is the first time many school board members attended the county budget hearings, pointing out board member Bob Frisch in the audience that night.

She pledged to solve the teachers' problems in the future.

Councilman Jim McMahan said he is concerned about the property tax rate.

"It is no easy task to sit here and look at a resolution that will levy and impose a property tax on each and every person that owns property in this county," he said, adding he did not want residents to think he did not consider the impact on them.

"I pay the same taxes as you do and we try to hold the taxes [level]," he said.

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