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Transportation, education top Harford County Executive David Craig’s agenda

David Craig, Harford County Executive

As past president of the Maryland Association of Counties, David R. Craig says he has often put himself in the role of mentor to county executives in smaller jurisdictions around Maryland.

A former math teacher and school administrator, such counsel comes naturally to Craig, the 62-year-old Republican Harford County Executive.

So naturally, he’s eyeing a 2014 run for governor.

“I enjoyed the General Assembly,” Craig said, of nearly 10 years as a state delegate and senator representing his hometown Havre de Grace. “But I like the executive aspect of it more. I actually like getting things done.”

What lessons could he bring to the governor’s office?

Watch video from our Newsmakers interview with Craig

“One is about balance — the other thing is efficiency,” Craig said, adding his years as a middle school assistant principal prepared him for nearly anything. “Thirteen-year-olds get along with each other about as well as politicians sometimes. It’s all turf.”

Craig’s home turf today sits at a crossroads.

Harford County’s population — nearly 245,000 — has grown by more than 10 percent in the last decade and shows no signs of slowing down. It is fueled by 4,200 new BRAC-related employees who have flooded into Aberdeen Proving Ground jobs since last year, most from Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. Thousands more are expected by 2015.

Amid the growth, Craig is wrestling with vexing transportation issues like insufficient state aid for BRAC-related road improvements and a controversial statewide proposal to raise tolls that would impact two bridges that are main county thoroughfares.

Then there’s the unique challenge of governing a county while towns like Bel Air, Aberdeen and Havre de Grace experience growth in housing and commercial development as never before.

Balancing budget priorities

The county’s $476.4 million operating budget for fiscal 2012, just adopted by the County Council, is marked by an unchanged property tax rate of $1.042 per $100 of assessed value and departmental spending cuts from 3 to 5 percent.

“This year, the budget was pretty boring,” he said. “We didn’t make the news anywhere. The night the budget was voted on, one person showed up and he didn’t even speak.”

Craig said he was forced to make $13 million in cuts in the fall of 2008 after his budget director warned revenues were falling as the economy began to tank. That action, in mid-year, softened the blow for the 2009 budget, which required another $13 million in cuts.

“We’ve cut the size of the workforce — we used to have 1,500 and now we have 1,200 employees,” he said.

“And we have a continual job freeze,” he added, explaining that each time a county job becomes vacant, officials scrutinize the position carefully to see if it can be eliminated or combined with another job.

Such austerity, he said in response to a question, could be a good lesson for say, Baltimore officials — and a majority of the Democratic candidates for mayor who are advocating cutting the city’s $2.268 property tax rate if elected. He has cut the county’s property tax rate twice in the last three years.

“The key is you have to live and breathe the budget,” Craig said. “You have to be involved in the budget and have to have a good budget manager to see the changes. I could sit down with any of them (Baltimore mayoral candidates) and talk specifics, but I think the key is probably 80 percent of Baltimore’s budget is just like ours, it’s people.

“It’s the people who provide the services and you have to do a balance between the revenues you receive, the way you spend the money and the employee who is in the middle.”

Clogged roads and higher tolls

One issue Craig said he consistently battles is inadequate transportation funding from the state. With the influx of BRAC stretching his county’s economic and residential base, the county’s aging and narrow roads and intersections are under great strain to keep up.

“In 2005 when I became county executive, we asked for $150 million in improvements to state roads and intersections,” he said. “We identified about 36 intersections that needed improvements … and we’ve been working with our delegation and through two administrations on the issue.

“That (funding) got narrowed down from 36 intersections to eight, and then lowered to six and finally to one. That intersection is the entrance that civilians use to get on post at APG at the Maryland Route 715 intersection.”

Not improving that intersection, he added, will mean that daily commuters could experience a 45-minute gridlock at the Route 22 entrance to APG by 2017, traffic studies show.

“Now it takes six minutes,” he said, of the trip through the gate. “If they don’t fix it by the time BRAC is all in, that could take 45 minutes. That will make it feel like you’re in Bethesda or Gaithersburg. It’s going to be a problem.

“And that just throws in the whole issue of tolls.”

Craig said the proposal by the Maryland Transportation Authority to raise bridge and tunnel tolls this fall and again in 2013 would hit his constituents hard.

“We were promised in 1940 that when the bridge had paid for itself, the toll would disappear . . .that bridge has paid for itself 100 times probably” he said of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, heavily used by Harford County locals, that spans Route 40 between Havre de Grace and Perryville in Cecil County.

The bridge is up for a toll increase from $5 to $8 by July 2013. An E-Z Pass annual commuter increase would cost $72 for unlimited trips by 2013; unlimited annual trips now cost $10 with a decal.

“For Cecil County, it’s the only county you have to pay to get into,” he said. “It’s almost like an island. It will affect their economy.”

BRAC workers need advanced degrees

Craig said he also plans to continue lobbying state higher education officials to open a university extension in Harford County. U.S. Army and BRAC officials have said they need to employ up to 240 new workers with master’s degrees and 20 workers with doctorates each year.

That message was taken to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, he said, with little result thus far.

“None of our universities have picked up on it,” Craig said. “The only one who has is the University of Delaware. Our universities don’t see that if they collaborate with each other that they would all benefit from it. Instead of collaboration, they are suspicious of each other. That needs to be corrected.”

Born and raised in Harford County in a family that dates back to the 1680s, Craig said he has been made rich by what he calls the good life there.

He cites the county’s commercial growth, including a Wegman’s, J. C. Penney, Costco Wholesale and Kohl’s Mid-Atlantic distribution center in the near future.

Private defense contractors also have set up large offices in sprawling new complexes near the main gate of APG, just off of Route 40 near Edgewood.

To the west of APG, almost 45,000 acres of farmland, much of it permanently preserved under easement, consistently yield some of the state’s sweetest tomatoes and corn in warm summer months.

“It’s all about quality of life,” Craig said, of Harford’s allure. “We’re like Maryland in miniature.”

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David R. Craig

Age: 62 (Born June 12, 1949)

Hometown: Havre de Grace

Family: Married to Melinda for 39 years; three children; eight grandchildren.

Education: Bachelor of Science, Towson State College, 1971; Master of Arts, Morgan State University, 1983.

Work: Served 34 years as a teacher and administrator for Harford County Public Schools; County Executive, Harford County, 2005-present; Mayor, Havre de Grace, 1985-89, 2001-05; Maryland State Senate, 1995-99; Maryland House of Delegates, 1991-95; City Council, Havre de Grace, 1979-85.

Boards and Service: President, Maryland Association of Counties, 2010 (treasurer, 2007; 2nd vice president, 2008; 1st vice president, 2009); President, Maryland Municipal League, 2005; Vice Chair, Maryland Regional Transportation Board, 2009-present; Base Realignment and Closure Subcabinet, 2007-present; Board of Directors, Baltimore Metropolitan Council, 2005-present (chair, 2007; vice chair, 2006); Board of Visitors, R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, University of Maryland Medical System, 2005-present; Board of Trustees, Maryland Historical Society, 2005-present; Board of Directors, Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, 2005-present; Member, County Executives of America, 2008-present.