HUNT VALLEY — If the Carroll commissioners came to the annual Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Baltimore County looking for relief from their budget problems, they came to the wrong place.
In fact, they -- and elected officials from 22 other counties and Baltimore -- learned that, for the most part, the state hasn't even begun to see the worst of this recent economic mess.
"We have a serious problem in this country, in this world, in this state," said Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who spoke to the more than 400 officials at the Marriot Hunt Valley Inn. "We have a problem that has never existed before."
That problem, according to Steinberg and many of the other state and county officials here for the three-day meeting, is government that, on all levels, no longer can affordto continue with business as usual.
"We live in a great state," he said. "But if we do business as usual, we're going to lose it."
Maryland's budget deficit is about $430 million for the current fiscal year.
Many of the large counties -- like Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore -- face current-year deficits as high as $100 million.
And while Carroll's three commissioners so far face a deficitof almost $3 million -- about 2 percent of their $116.3 million budget -- they still are far from optimistic about the next couple of years.
"I'm concerned about things that have not taken place since the Great Depression," said Commissioner Vice President Elmer C. Lippy Jr. "Banks are failing; local governments are financially strapped.
"Maybe this (time) won't be quite as bad, but there is a problem."
And problems were the order of the conference. From transportationto education to tax reform, county officials got their share of gloom and doom.
"If you came here looking for us to say that we have a(appropriations) bill that would allow you to do everything we want you to do, I'm sorry," Steinberg said. "We just don't have the money to give you."
For Carroll County, no money once again means Hampstead will have to wait at least another year or two for its bypass, according to state Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer.
"Intwo words, I guess I could say that the Transportation Department is'going broke,' " he said.
No money means the prospect of less state aid for education, especially at Carroll Community College.
And it could even mean more than that, said Steven D. Powell, the county's director of management and budget.
"A lot of this gives me great cause for concern," said Powell. "We're in better shape than some of the other counties. But if our revenues drop like theirs did, thatwould require major reorganization."
Major reorganization, he said, could include layoffs, program elimination and other actions.
While Powell is looking to make sure Carroll's budget remains manageable, Commissioner Julia W. Gouge is confident the county still is fundamentally solid.
"We'll have to rely a lot more on our own resources than in the past," she said. "But we're strong.
"I think we'll be able to weather this better than many of the other counties."
At the same time the state is laying off people and larger counties are trimming programs and eliminating services, Carroll has frozen hiring, cut travel expenses and lowered building temperatures.
But, so far, no programs -- or employees -- have been eliminated.
"From what I'm hearing, maybe we'll have to take a look at programs that are notpriorities," said Commissioner President Donald I. Dell. "If we can't afford them, they may have to take some cuts.
"We have to keep tightening our belts."