Budget blues: I

April 18, 1991

The voters of Baltimore County gave Roger Hayden a mandate in November -- trim government and cut spending but retain quality services. On Tuesday the county executive delivered. Not only does Hayden's proposed budget call for a 2-cent cut in the property tax rate, it also includes an increase for the Education Department.

Indeed, Hayden appears to have done the un-doable. But there is no fiscal magic here. The executive accomplished this accounting feat with plodding, methodical pragmatism. He cut virtually every vacant position -- 236 all told -- and slashed the pay-as-you-go fund for capital projects. He denied cost-of-living raises to all county employees. Then he funneled a lot of the savings to education, and to make up for the tax cut, he proposed raising some fees. This is not, however, a political shell game: Hayden promised, during his campaign, to take some of the burden for financing government off homeowners. Which he has done. And he promised to cut the fat. Which he has done as well.

Still, the stinging fact remains that, despite the property tax cut, the average tax bill in the county will go up anyway, simply because assessments have increased. And despite Hayden's commitment to leaner government, this is a patchwork approach -- not a long-term strategy. Though the executive pared a substantial number of jobs, he also added 332 positions -- almost all in the school system -- for a net gain of 96. And certainly it is not politically feasible to deny employees pay increases for two consecutive years. So, too, will it be impossible to execute another round of job-slashing without reducing the county work force to a point where service would suffer.

Hayden -- like every other local political leader -- now becomes a hostage of the national economy. If the recession lingers and local revenues remain flat, Hayden will not be able to pull it off again. But for now, he has orchestrated a delicate balancing act -- keeping intact both the fiscal integrity of the county and the promise he made to the people who elected him.


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