From Harford County Councilman Mike Perrone:
This week I introduced an amendment to the County Executive’s proposed budget to remove and hold on to for now the $24 million that he has proposed for agricultural preservation easements.
I’ve seen social media posts and comments over the past few days in regard to the idea that agricultural preservation payments represent transfers of wealth to wealthy landowners. I disagree with that. To be for example a dairy farmer who has mortgaged their land to the maximum extent because large scale milk producers have driven the price point to a level where cash flow is negative and their only option is to borrow in the hope that the price of milk will someday rebound… this doesn’t fit the definition of “wealthy”. I understand that they are struggling. But others are struggling too.
To understand where Harford County’s agricultural preservation efforts stand today, we need to understand how we got here. When the County began this program in 1992, the goal for preserved acreage was 50,000. We’ve met this goal. The easements that protect the 51,000 or so acres in preservation from development are permanent, so if the County suspends or terminates this program moving forward, those 51,000 acres will remain protected.
My reasoning for trying to remove agricultural preservation appropriations from the FY 2019 budget has more to do with spending priorities and public safety in particular, but the topic of preserving open space has come up in many conversations that I’ve had since I introduced the budget amendment, so I want to share my thoughts there too.
The difference between open space that is privately versus publicly owned is huge. When we look at Harford County’s development envelope and look for active open space in particular, we don’t see much beyond what is on school property, though there are still large tracts of land left within the development envelope that could be used for active open space. The land between Magnolia Road and Trimble Road in Joppa and the land south of Plumtree Road between Routes 24 and 924 in Bel Air come to mind because of the development pressure that those parcels have been under in recent years, but there are plenty of other areas too between Edgewood and Havre de Grace. If County Government can see the value in preserving privately owned open space outside of the development envelope, why does County Government make no effort to secure publicly owned open space within the envelope?
My main point though is that we desperately need to save this $24 million to be spent elsewhere. Public safety comes to mind first. Our Volunteer Fire Companies have been on starvation budgets for the last decade, and our EMS system is a patchwork of paid crews (who earn less than in other jurisdictions) and ever shrinking volunteer crews. The EMS Foundation that employs the paid crews recently cut out a day crew that they could no longer afford to pay. How can we accept this? The cost increases that our Fire Companies and Foundation face are real and easy to verify. What are we going to do about it?
People came out in full force to the Council’s last public hearing to oppose my amendment, while only one speaker was somewhat supportive of. I believe the turnout would have been more balanced if the tax increases that will soon be proposed to support things like a County run EMS system and more School Resource Officers were on the table today. Make no mistake – those tax increases are coming. And when we get there, future elected officials will say things like “we don’t know where to cut from” and “we don’t have a choice”. I’m saying today that we DO have a choice. It might not be an easy choice, but it is the job of elected officials to make difficult choices.
Back to the idea of helping people who are struggling. $24 million works out to about $240 per household in Harford County. It doesn’t matter that the real estate transfer tax is only levied when a property changes hands… it is still a tax that is paid by homeowners in Harford County. And there are plenty of people who are made to pay that tax who are struggling too. How can you go to one group of struggling people and tell them they have to pay up to support other struggling people?
I know that politics in modern day America revolve around divisiveness and lack of willingness to compromise. I do not want to contribute to that divisiveness, but when County Government sends a loud and clear message through its budget that agricultural preservation efforts (beyond our original goal) are more important than public safety, someone needs to call that out. And when County Government continues to invest in private open space in rural communities while ignoring the need for public open space in our more densely populated communities, someone needs to call that out too.