Interview with Bel Air Town Commissioner Rob Preston:
As part of The Dagger’s coverage of the Town of Bel Air’s municipal election on Nov. 3, the following questions were presented to each candidate for town commissioner.
The five questions (bolded and boxed) were chosen to generate discussion on specific topics. The candidates’ answers have been included verbatim as received by email or reported following an interview.
1.) In short, who are you and why are you running for re-election?
1. Nobody has a greater interest in the success of our Town than I do. I have lived in Bel Air most of my life, attended Bel Air Schools, been married for 40 years, and have two married children (both live in Town) and two grandchildren. I like to restore old Corvettes, ride motorcycles, and sail Hobe Cats. My family has owned and operated Preston’s Stationery on Main Street for 83 years. I am the 3rd generation and actually started working in the store 50 years ago. I am also the 3rd generation to be a Town Commissioner: Grandfather Preston served in the 30’s and Dad served in the 70’s.
I feel it is important to have someone on the board with retail experience. I have lived through many changes on Main Street and know the value of available parking, making deliveries, and generating foot traffic. I first decided to run for office when I saw some complacency toward existing business. Our Town has improved greatly in the last 7-8 years, and I attribute much of that to the Bel Air Downtown Alliance. We are currently going through some very troubling times, and I would like to continue to encourage more retail shops on Main Street.
2.) The town budget has more than doubled this decade. How do you feel this has benefited the town, and how do you handle the budget as commissioner?
2. Increases in our budget have occurred mainly due to inflation. Our dollars from ten years ago are not worth as much today. This is reflected in assessments and has a direct impact on our budget. 7 years ago, when I first looked at the budget, I was surprised that we spent $10,000 a month just to light our streets. Today that amount is $12,000. We are faced with similar increases across the board for insurance, fuel, etc. We also contributed $1,500,000 for a larger auditorium and over $400,000 on a Main Street project.
I believe the budget is a good tool. It reflects both ability and need, and it has to balance. We make decisions on an ongoing basis every month, and I feel our Town has been very conservative with the funds available. This month, we are cutting over $500,000 from this year’s budget due to a change in income.
3.) The commissioners recently voted to table plans to renovate the town hall. Did you support the renovations, and how can the town manage costs and facility shortcomings?
3. I support capital improvements to the police department WHEN ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE. I will not raise taxes for any expansion of town government. When, and if our budget will allow for reasonable improvements without any increases, I will consider the appropriate action. The down turn in our economy may last for awhile longer than expected, however, eventually we will see improvement and the opportunity to correct our issues will be possible. We currently have sufficient capital to overcome any emergency problems.
4.) The town recently completed a renovation of Main Street. Do you feel this has benefited the community, and how should the town handle the logistical problems or improve the town economy in the future?
4. The completion of Main Street has been the most significant change to Bel Air in the last 40 years. The perception of a revitalized Town is in itself enough to start the revival process. Our creation of the Downtown Alliance has had far reaching results that have stimulated growth even in a down economy. Further stimulation that increases foot traffic should improve occupancy rate.
Our largest logistical problem will always be traffic. Unfortunately. we are at the mercy of the state and county governments that control our major access routes. Our ability will be directed toward safety in both speed reduction and pedestrian safety. We currently have neighborhood evaluation programs to assist when issues affect residential areas.
5.) Why do you think you are a better choice for town commissioner than any of the challengers?
5. I have a sincere appreciation for the people who work and live in this community, and together we can continue to make our Town the “Heart of Harford County.” My honest and mature approach to dealing with Town issues and my ability to work fairly to resolve differences add stability to our board. I have years of experience working with the Town budget and have a good working knowledge of planning & zoning issues. I believe I have earned the respect from the Town department heads and management, as well as officials in other cities and county government. My personal commitment to spend the time to oversee Town operations as well as protecting the rights of our residents, makes me a good choice for continuance in office.
A few additional thoughts regarding the budget:
Depending on how you look at priorities, the budget is Good, Bad or Neutral! We have different funds that are separate. Perhaps this will offer additional explanation as to why our budget has increased.
Parking Fund – Supported by users of the garage, meters, and fines. All revenue is used to support parking.
Sewer Fund – Again money generated by users, businesses, hospitals, restaurants, and homes. This is billed as a function of water usage and pays for maintenance and treatment of our sewage. Harford Co. has an agreement with the Town that sets cost for treatment every year.
Special Revenue Fund – This account is used for all grants. Many are state funds for special projects, trees, playgrounds,cultural arts, historic preservation, and the Armory. The money does not come from the local tax rate. It is usually earmarked for a special purpose from the state agency that gives it to us.
These accounts make up $3,000,000 of our budget, but have no effect on our local taxes. I would call this, “Neutral,” possibly, “Good,” depending on viewpoint.
General Fund – This is where most tax money goes. 54.4% is used for public safety (Police) and Public Works. Taxes are established by rate, fixed by the Bel Air Town Board, and assessments are set by the State of Maryland. Our rate has changed $.06 since 1992, and has been at $.50 per $1000 of value for the last 6 years. Our rate is 29% less than other municipalities in Harford County. One reason our rate is less is because we have borrowed very little money. Our debt ratio is very low and we do not spend much on financing.
From Preston’s biography from the town website:
Robert M. Preston has a long history of dedication and outstanding service to the Bel Air Community; one that encompasses a strong commitment to the well being of the Town of Bel Air, as well as Bel Air High School. A life long resident of the Town of Bel Air, he is the grandson of C. Milton Wright, a former superintendent of Harford County public schools. After graduating from Bel Air High School in 1967, he served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He returned from service to his Country to join a family office supply business, Bel Air Preston’s Stationery, which has operated in the Bel Air community since 1926.
Mr. Preston has been a member of the Bel Air Rotary Club for 30 years and served as past President; he served 10 years as a member of the Bel Air Planning Commission; and is a Board member of the Historical Society of Harford County. He was elected to the Bel Air Board of Commissioners in November 2002 and 2005 and has served 2 years as Chairman of the Town Board.
Assigned Liaison Responsibilities:
-Liaison with County and State
-Commissioner of Administration and Finance
-Commissioner of Events Committee
-Commissioner of Disabled
-Commissioner of Voter Registration
-Commissioner of Public Works