Officials Caught Between A Budget And A Hard Place

March 17, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

COUNTY GOVERNMENT — here and elsewhere in Maryland -- has taken to begging in recent months.

Begging the state for more money. Begging employees for no raises. And, mostly, begging the public for some understanding as roads, social services, schools and other county programs bear the brunt of the worst budgetary crisis here in almost two decades.

"These are really tough times," said Steven D. Powell, the county's beleaguered management and budget director as he pored over the impacts of recent budget-cutting proposals last week. "We're looking for money anywhere we can now."

He and the County Commissioners aren't the only ones as Carroll tries to bail itself out of a $5.3 million deficit in the current budget year's $115 million spending plan.

As the beginning of the next fiscal year approaches on July 1, the county and its dozens of agencies are on edge, wondering where state cuts, decreased income tax revenue and spiraling costs are going to leave them.

The process, on the surface, is simple. In Maryland, allbudgets of all governmental subdivisions -- including cities, towns and counties -- must be balanced.

It's not until the actual balancing of revenue and expenses where the difficulty begins.

The commissioners have reported that they expect revenue in the county's operating budget to total a little more than $112 million next year, whileoriginal expense requests earlier in the winter totaled nearly $140 million.

The growth in revenue between this year -- expected to come in at just under $110 million from original projections of nearly $117 million -- and next year is one of the smallest ever predicted in a county accustomed to 10 percent to 15 percent annual growth rates.

To whittle the disparity between expenses and revenue, all county agencies have proposed more than $3.9 million worth of cuts from their current spending levels.

From services that feed, transport and help senior citizens to the county's classrooms, Powell and the commissioners have asked for across-the-board 2 percent reductions in spending from this year's levels.

For most of those programs, the cuts will be painful.

"As I look at the cuts we're making, I see that, for the most part, they don't affect the day-to-day operations of county government," Commissioner Vice President Elmer C. Lippy Jr. said during a press conference on the budget last week. "Ironically, all they seem to affect are human beings."

The commissioners and thebudget office have about a month and a half to come up with a proposed spending plan.

But already officials are saying that the spending plan will mostlikely not be enough for any real expansion of county services and programs.

This despite an all-but-certain increase in the county's main source of revenue -- the property tax.

For the current budget year, more than $49 million in property taxes are expected to be collected. And, should the commissioners hold to their no-new-taxes pledge, more than $52.8 million in property taxes will becollected next year, an increase of nearly 8 percent

(In actuality, whenever the commissioners keep the property tax rate -- here $2.35 for every $100 of assessed valuation -- above the constant yield rate, property owners experience a de facto tax increase. The constant yield is the rate of tax that, when applied to the county's total assessable base, would generate the same amount of revenue as was generated in the previous year. For 1992, the constant yield is $2.19 per $100.)

To hear Powell or the commissioners say it, having to go begging for more money just to keep programs intact is especially stressingwhen their main source of revenue continues its string of steady yearly increases.

Should the commissioners break with their no-taxes pledge -- Lippy and Commissioner President Donald I. Dell have hinted that they might raise taxes as an absolute last resort -- every penny increase would mean an additional $225,000 in revenue. To make upfor the nearly $4 million cut from next year's proposed budget, the commissioners would have to raise the tax rate to about $2.52 per $100.

"We only have so many dollars to go around," Commissioner JuliaW. Gouge said last week. In fact, sales tax revenues from the state are down, income tax collections are down and state aid for roads, schools, and social programs are down.

That search for money has been felt particularly hard by the school board, which annually walks away from the county with far less than it requested.

"We're dealingwith issues on two fronts," said William H. Hyde, assistant superintendent of administration. "We've got the county scene on one hand andthen the state and its reductions on the other."

The school boardhad asked the county for $7.7 million more than the $55.5 million ithas received this year. One round of cuts dropped the increase to $5.5 million; the county commissioners have said that, in all likelihood, the board will have to make do with far less.

Which, education officials say, means teachers and students will have to make do with less.

"The budget has affected us at the bargaining table," said Harold J. Fox Jr., chief negotiator for the Carroll County Education Association, the teacher's union. "We're waiting to see what cards arefinally dealt, and trying to see that what we negotiate is fair and equitable."

The teachers are lobbying for a pay increase as they negotiate for a new, three-year contract. The school board, so far, has asked the union to halt bargaining for 60 days; the union has not responded to that request yet.

"We are not ready to concede that it's a no-money year," Fox said.

But no one is convinced that it will be an additional-money year.

"We seem to have '91 under control," Dell said. "But we still don't know about next year."

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