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There won’t be any property tax rate increase in the 2012 Harford County government budget, and some homeowners may actually get lower tax bills this July.

There also aren’t going to be any raises for county government employees, including law enforcement, for the third year in a row in the budget that Harford County Executive David Craig submits to the Harford County Council today (Friday).

And the 5,000-plus school system employees, who were hoping to see bigger paychecks under the deals their unions negotiated with school officials, may also have to settle for less, possibly nothing as well.

Craig plans a late afternoon press conference today to unveil the specifics of the new budget to the public. He planned to meet individually with county council members and with representatives from the school system, the sheriff’s office, library system and community college throughout the day.

In a brief interview Monday, he confirmed that he expects to hold the line on the tax rate and won’t propose many spending increases. The county is seeing some increase in local income tax revenue, he said, but property tax revenue is projected to decrease slightly, a result of static or falling property assessments.

The prolonged housing construction and real estate sales slump has depressed property assessments in some areas of the county, particularly in Bel Air, Forest Hill and Fallston, where homeowners were hit with big increases three years ago. Under pressure from beleaguered homeowners, the county council lowered the tax rate in 2009 and again last year; the latter decrease was $2.2 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The current property tax rate of $1.042 per $100 of assessed value is well below the state constant yield rate of $1.059, Craig said. Had the rate been proposed above that level, the county would have to hold a public hearing to explain why. The 89.6-cent tax rate property owners in the incorporated municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace also won’t change.

Small increase

Overall spending on operations will increase about $5 million, according to Craig, which isn’t much in a half-billion dollar-plus budget. The final county budgets for 2011 were $580.3 million operating and $124.5 million capital.

“We set a target with the departments in February to hold their requests as tight as they could,” Craig said.

In addition to factoring in utility and other fixed costs over which the county has little control, Craig said there are small increases for the circuit court and for the detention center, where an addition will open in the 2012 fiscal year.

School reductions

Craig also confirmed that he denied most of the $24.2 million increase the school system requested from the county in the $447.8 million budget the board of education approved in January. He said he approved some added costs for magnet programs at Joppatowne and North Harford high schools, as well as operating costs associated with the new Red Pump Elementary School slated to open in August.

Most of the increase sought from the county is ticketed to fund a 2 percent cost of living raise for teachers and other school employees, as well as so-called step and longevity raises for the teachers.

Craig said if the school system wants to fund the raises, which were negotiated with employee unions in most cases, then the superintendent and school board should find the money by applying spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. He suggested reductions in administrative and other professional, non-teaching staff would be a logical place to start.

The Red Pump funding he did approve is less than school officials requested, he said.

The new school should be mostly staffed with teachers and administrators already on the payroll who are transferred from existing schools, Craig said, noting that those other schools will have fewer students under the countywide elementary redistricting just approved in conjunction with Red Pump.

Pressure both ways

Under state law, any reductions made by Craig in the $237.1 million the school system has requested from the county can be restored by the county council. Craig pointed out, however, that the council will have to cut funds elsewhere in the county budget, raise taxes or do both, to offset the reductions.

Craig acknowledged the council will be under pressure from teachers and other advocates to put in more county funding for the schools but said, “They [the council] will also be under pressure from others to cut the budget and lower taxes.”

The council typically takes all of April to review the budget on a department by department basis. Two public hearings will be held during May. By law, the council has to complete its work on the budget and pass it by June 1.


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