Tough Times in Suburbia

December 09, 1990

The latest spate of bad economic news from Annapolis brings into focus the dilemma confronting county executives in the Baltimore-Washington region. Already pummelled by plunging county tax revenues, localities are now faced with cuts in state aid. Gov. William Donald Schaefer's plan to erase a $423.2 budget gap includes a 10 percent reduction in local aid, with the richer subdivisions taking the biggest hit. Other cuts in state programs ordered by the governor will force reductions in health and social-service programs in the counties and city.

This is unpleasant medicine for local executives, most of whom are already struggling to balance their own checkbooks. Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter is projecting a shortage of at least $65 million this fiscal year. Prince George's County has furloughed 190 workers to help close a $49.9 million revenue gap.

Closer to home, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker says that layoffs and higher local taxes may be necessary to ease his county's projected $15 million to $18 million deficit. In Anne Arundel County, which is not yet facing a revenue shortfall, County Executive Robert R. Neall says that he will not expand the work force and has hinted at withholding salary increases in upcoming labor negotiations with county employees.

Carroll County has frozen hiring and travel to make up an income tax shortfall of $2.5 million. Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann has temporarily halted hiring and purchases and postponed new construction.

Baltimore County had been conservative in earlier budget projections, but 1991 will be a rugged one nonetheless. Baltimore City, which long has grappled with the kind of shrinking revenue base now bedeviling its suburban neighbors, so far has managed to keep pace with its revenues.

Next year will put newly elected county executives to the test. There's clearly going to be some pain down the road. Jobs will be lost, programs cut. Raises for county workers may be skimpy or non-existent. Residents may be forced to choose between services and higher taxes. Local governments have been quick to respond to the economic signals. Most are tightening their belts and there's growing talk of regional cooperation. That's the right direction to take.

This will be a period of tough choices and unpleasant decisions. Local governments, which benefited so greatly from expanded state aid in recent decades, now have to take up the burden imposed by tough economic times.

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