Harford council passes $627.5 million operating budget for 2015, no pay increases

The Harford County Council passed a $627.5 million operating budget and $107.3 million capital program for 2015 on Tuesday night, drawing renewed complaints from residents about underfunding teachers, sheriff's deputies and other employees.

The budget includes amendments, approved earlier this month, funding design for a new Havre de Grace High School as well as a new Havre de Grace library building.

The total amount approved, with dozens of amendments, is slightly higher than the amount proposed by Harford County Executive David Craig, of $626.9 million for operating costs and $107.8 million for capital expenses.

The property tax rate remains unchanged at $1.042 per $100 of assessed value outside Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace; however the rate on property inside the municipalities has been set at 89.37 cents per $100, down from 89.6 cents.

The municipal rate is declining by 23 one-hundredths of a cent, while the highway differential tax charged on properties outside the municipalities will increase to 14.83 cents per $100 of assessed value from 14.6 cents.

County finance officials said Friday the differences result from a reduction of the basic rate to 89.37 to reflect state constant yield revenue projections that show the county getting the same revenue as in 2014 with that rate.

What it also means is a property owner inside a municipality could see a slightly smaller tax bill, depending on their property's assessment, while the property owner outside of a municipality will pay the same tax bill as last year. On a house in one of the municipalities assessed for $200,000, the reduction would be $4.60.

The council had discussed giving another $5 million to the Havre de Grace school replacement but ultimately stuck with the original $4.9 million suggested for design services.

As proposed by Craig, the budget gives the school system $2.3 million more than last year. The school system requested $243.3 million from the county, a $32 million increase over last year. The increase would have covered negotiated 1 percent raises and step increases for school employees.

The budget also gives another $1.1 million to the human resources department, about $600,000 to information technology and about $162,000 to the Sheriff's Office.

Councilman Dion Guthrie, who had tried to strike down the library funding so employees could get raises, was alone in voting against the budget Tuesday.

"This certainly is one of the most difficult budgets we have had to go over and go through in my years on the council," Guthrie said, noting the council keeps hearing from employees who have not received raises in four or five years.

He found it "disturbing" that the county is paying millions for capital projects but cannot find money for employees to run those projects.

"Those buildings are worthless unless you can have people in the building who can do the work," he said.

Council President Billy Boniface seemed to agree but nevertheless voted for the budget.

"This is the plan for the future. I don't think it's going to look exactly like what we're passing today," he said.

Boniface, who is not seeking re-election, added the next council will also have to worry about "our human infrastructure."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said she found the pay and classification plan for the county school system to be "challenging" every year, "because we have no authority to cut anything from the school system and re-allocate to [other things]."

She suggested the county executive consider a hiring moratorium, as she found many positions that are funded but have not been filled, with the savings from the freeze being directed toward schools, Sheriff's Office and other county employees.

Gregory Plotycia, of Bel Air, thanked Guthrie for his comments but told the council he was saddened by the reduced quality of life in Harford during the past five to seven years.

Plotycia said he has lived in Harford for more than 30 years but now sees roads with potholes, tall grass in medians and a school system with not even one high school ranked in the top 40 of the state.

"It never used to be like that," Plotycia said, adding he understands the council does not have the money but "quality costs money."

"I believe this is a direct result of the political leadership we have had in this county. The citizens deserve better than what we have had in the last [several] years," he said, drawing applause from the audience.

Tim Impallaria, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union, told the council that deputy sheriffs have "been living in suspended animation," as have all county employees.

He said many employees are coming up on the seventh year without a step pay increase, frustrating deputies who budgeted their futures based on pay plans that were never funded.

He said he sees the county support numerous development projects instead and joked his group has considered changing its name to the Havre de Grace Land Trust in hopes of finally getting funding.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association teachers' union, said he has regularly watched the council "pontificate" on everything from Syria to stabbings in China without addressing issues at home.

"This county has demonstrated an utter void of leadership," Burbey said, telling council members they do not sit on the dais to be Republicans or Democrats, or to push blame on to the president or Congress.

"It's to solve the problems locally and you're not doing that. It's just not happening," he said, adding the legislation passed creates more problems, such as the highly controversial plans for a retirement community on the former Eva Mar farm in Bel Air and a planned Walmart for the Emmorton area.

Burbey said the school system has 38,000 children, nearly a third of the county's population.

"To neglect the school system is to neglect a third of your population," he said. "You're going to have the lowest paid school system in the state."

This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect a correction in the municipal or base property tax rate for 2015 which has been set slightly lower at 89.37 cents per $100 of assessed value. The non-municipal rate is unchanged at $1.042 per $100 of assessed value.

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