A funny thing happened when the Carroll County commissioners held their informational budget meeting this week. As Budget Director Steven D. Powell kept explaining the proposed expenditures, numbers kept falling off a display board. "Maybe this is a little bit symbolic of the revenue picture," he remarked.
Because Carroll County's projected $115.3 million operating budget is the smallest spending program among Baltimore area jurisdictions, it has been particularly sensitive to the uncertainties of recessionary times. Commissioners initially expected a $2.2 million shortfall, which then increased to $3.5 million and jumped again to $5.3 million. Even after the budget books were printed, an additional $650,000 shortfall developed.
All this is due to falling revenues. While income from property taxes has increased, "piggyback" income-tax receipts, along with recordation, cigarette and gasoline taxes, have plummeted. Carroll officials also note that after years of growth, in-migration of well-to-do families has slowed. Will this trend continue after the economy picks up?
By proposing an operating budget that is 1.9 percent lower than the current year's, the commissioners have been able to maintain the property tax rate at $2.35 for each $100 of assessed value. That has meant cuts across the board, as well as postponement of recognized needs, such as increased funding for the volunteer fire and emergency rescue companies.
Yet it is the capital budget that has taken the biggest hit. It has been slashed by 33 percent, with all construction programs having been affected, except for education. Because of the commissioners' open budget process in which major decisions are made along the road, none of this comes as a surprise. But it underscores the effects of the recession on a small county that has many pent-up needs.
During the last two decades, the basic character of Carroll has changed. Once a rural county, its rolling hills now accommodate both suburban and rural uses. Sometimes those characteristics are in conflict, sometimes they coexist.
This has inevitably led to various constituencies developing different perceptions about what the county's spending objectives should be. Education, for example, is a priority to many of the young families who have trekked to Carroll from Baltimore City.
But education spending also has vocal critics. They argue that if schools gobble up 52 percent of the operating budget, there has to be waste. There may be, particularly in purchasing. For that reason we urge the Carroll County commissioners to become leaders in an effort to create a joint purchasing system for all school systems in the Baltimore metropolitan area.