State, County Struggle With Mounting Budget Problems

Agencies, Services Ask For 19 Percent Over Current Budget

January 20, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

If the people who run the county's agencies and services had their way, Carroll would spend close to $140 million during fiscal year 1992, an increase of nearly 19 percent over the amount they're spending this year.

The trouble is, says the budget and management director,that figure is about $24 million more than the county will take in between July 1991 and June 1992.

"That's about where we are," said Steven D. Powell, the budget director. "It's not a pretty picture, but that's where things stand."

And it won't be a pretty picture for some time to come, he said.

Used to years with multimillion dollar budget surpluses, Carroll nowhas to grapple with declining revenues, sluggish growth and a largerdemand for services as it puts together its spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1.

In fact, revenues for the current year's operating budget -- money spent on employees, services, programs and all non-construction projects -- are about $3 million short.

A hiring freeze, energy conservation program, traveling ban and transfers of money from other areas are expected to take care of this year'sshortfall.

Even the little things are being cut. On Friday, an airplane tour of the county was abruptly canceled by the County Commissioners.

"The commissioners decided to postpone the trip," said J. Michael Evans, director of the Department of Permits and Regulations and the organizer of the trip. "Considering our budget status, they did not want to send the wrong message that they have nothing better to do than fly around."

Expected savings from the postponement of the trip? About $100, Evans said.

But, for 1992, Powell will have to come up with far more than canceled plane rides to get the budget into balance.

"The biggest problem is that, in years past, we've had more unspent money left over at the end of the year," Powell said. "Well, this year, we don't."

Indeed, what was supposed to be an 8 percent increase in revenues this year turned into a 6 percent increase, causing the county's current cash crunch. And, Powell said, next year's 6.5 percent increase forecast is optimistic.

From 1985 to 1990, revenue increases had averaged 11.7 percent a year.

The largeincrease in the requested 1992 budget comes as somewhat of a surprise, as late last year the commissioners told agency heads to hold spending at current-year levels.

In only one area -- economic development and assistance -- did 1992's request remain virtually unchanged from 1991's budget. Of the remaining 10 areas of government, the smallest requested increase was for health and social welfare programs, where the $3.9 million proposal for 1992 was 10.3 percent greater than the current year's $3.5 million.

The largest requested increase came in public works, where a proposed $13.3 million 1992 budget is 25.4 percent greater than 1991's $10.6 million.

Last year's inflationrate, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, was just more than 6 percent.

As Powell and the rest of the county's budget staff tryto get revenue and expenditure numbers to match -- balanced budgets are mandatory in Maryland -- they also will be eliminating new jobs, new programs and new services.

And he probably won't be able to rely on a higher tax rate to aid in balancing the budget. So far at least, the commissioners have ruled out an increase in the county's tax rate of $2.35 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Some of the budget cuts already have been made.

The proposed capital budget -- used for brick-and-mortar projects -- came in at $93.4 million. Powell's office sliced $48 million from that request.

To get there, he proposed eliminating $13.6 million worth of road projects, $4.1 million worth of athletic fields and building equipment at Carroll Community College and nearly $10 million from Board of Education construction projects.

And while the effects of Powell's cuts on the capital budget are known, the cuts in the operating budget have yet to take shape.

Here are other operating budget requests that county officials haveindicated may feel the ax:

* Some of the requests for 46 new positions. Powell and the commissioners have made it clear that an expansion of the 875-member county work force is not going to take place. Those new positions would add $1.5 million to the budget.

* Part ofthe sheriff's $1.1 million request could be pared down. So could the$2.4 million requested by the county's Volunteer Fireman's Association.

* Part of the $2.4 million in operating money sought by the community college -- a $541,335 increase over the current year's $1.8 million -- could end up being trimmed, especially with the money for construction of new athletic fields and building equipment already having been cut from the capital budget.

Other savings will occur when Powell cuts programs in the operating budget that are tied to specific capital projects. Where money for construction of new and renovated office space has been eliminated, there will be associated cuts in operating money to staff and run those buildings.

Even with deepcuts, budget officials say, county finances will continue to be tight. If the operating budget remained the same for fiscal 1992 as for the current year, revenues would only outpace expenditures by about $1.8 million, far too close for comfort, Powell said.

"While I am comfortable where we are," he said two weeks ago during the Maryland Association of Counties annual meeting in Baltimore County, "there is still great cause for concern. We're better off than a lot of other counties. But that could change."

The county is expecting to take infar less during this year than it had hoped to, mainly because of falling tax revenues. What was a $3.3 million surplus last July will be-- optimistically -- a $1 million surplus by this July, Powell said.

And that surplus could dwindle to nothing by the end of fiscal 1992.

The County Commissioners are to reveal their budget recommendations -- which usually mirror Powell's recommendations -- by March. A1992 budget must be adopted in May.

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