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The Harford County Council voted Friday evening to cut the real estate tax rate 1.8 cents.

The rate cut, which would amount to a tax savings of about $54 on a $300,000 home, was approved during an extended special session Friday evening, when the council also voted 6-1 to approve a $576.6 million operating budget, about $2.7 million less than originally proposed by Harford County Executive David Craig.

The council also approved a $187.6 million capital budget, cutting $44.5 million from what Craig originally requested, mostly involving anticipated funding for multi-year projects.

Because the council made about $5.3 million in operating budget cuts as its two-month review wound down Thursday evening, Craig said Tuesday he is still reviewing the council’s actions and won’t finalize until early next week how he will handle those reductions.

Councilman Dion Guthrie was the only council member to vote against the budget, although he voted for the resolution setting a lower tax rate.

Guthrie said he was upset at the way the council reacted to a citizen tax and spending protest that started in earnest about two weeks earlier and, at its height, involved no more than 250 people.

“The problem with the budget, the problem I have, is the council members just folded under the pressure of all the couple of hundred people who came and started demonstrating in the council chambers,” Guthrie said Monday. “We represent 249,000 people, not 254. You have to understand what effect your vote is going to do to 249,000 people, not 254.”

About 15 people attended Thursday’s emergency legislative session on the budget, which then had to be carried over until Friday evening. More than 200 attended the council’s regular legislative session on May 26 at which the budget had been scheduled to be adopted, before the council started making wholesale reductions and had to move back the final vote.

Guthrie also said the council does not know what effect the cuts will have on the county, county employees or services to constituents. Craig and his fiscal advisors made similar statements.

“They just folded,” Guthrie said of his colleagues. “Me, personally, I could not vote on a budget when I have no idea what it’s going to do. To me, that’s just not competent. It’s not what we were elected to do.”

The new property tax rates, effective July 1, will be $1.068 in the county and $0.908 inside the municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace. The current rates are $1.082 and $0.926.

The county rate is higher because it contains what is known as a differential of $0.156 per $100 of assessed value to pay for highway operations and maintenance. The municipal governments are responsible for their own road improvements and tax their residents directly for those services.

In the special session Thursday evening, the council applied a 5 percent across the board cut to every department except the school system, sheriff’s office and community college. Every executive branch agency, the council and the library system are affected by those cuts.

On Friday, the council also voted to cut the personal property tax rate 4.5 cents to $2.270 per $100 of assessed value. This tax is imposed on some business personal property such as furnishings, computers and fixtures. The current rate is $2.315.

Craig doesn’t have a veto over the tax rate reductions because they are set by resolution. He could veto the actual budget reductions, but he seemed to be resigned to accepting them.

He said it will be difficult to just cut a flat 5 percent from every agency, noting that some, like the library system, state’s attorney and circuit court, receive money from the county, but he [Craig] doesn’t control how they spend it. In addition, the school system, community college and sheriff’s office receive about $290.5 million, or 50.3 percent of the $576.5 million operating budget, and none of the three was reduced.

Layoffs and reductions in services could be back on the table in light of the final budget actions by the council, Craig said.

When he first presented the budget in early April, Craig said all county employees would have to take five furlough days without pay during the 2010 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Craig said it was his intention to close down the county government on those days. The sheriff’s office, other public safety agencies and the school system would not be affected by the furloughs.

The furlough plan was proposed before the council made its budget cuts and apparently was crafted with the belief the council would pass the original budget intact. Craig had said previously he was planning the furloughs to avoid having to lay off anybody.


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