Local Governments Reinventing Themselves Budget Crunch Forces Decisions About What Counties Do

November 03, 1991|By ELISE ARMACOST

The woman was angry.

Somewhere in the course of carving $21 million out of Anne Arundel's county budget, budget officials axed the referee for her little boy's soccer league. She dialed County Executive Robert R. Neall and demanded to know why.

She pays taxes, plenty of them. So why shouldn't her son have somebody to officiate his games?

During the past few weeks, County Executive Robert R. Neall has heard this argument more times than he can count. "In the abstract," he says, "I can understand why a parent would say, 'Dammit, I pay taxes because I want my kid in parks and recreation programs to have a referee.' But at some point, you have to alter expectations."

In Maryland, we have reached that point.

Beyond the immediate, painful issue of what services to cut and how many workers to lay off, the statewide budget crisis is raising serious, long-range questions about what local government is versus what it should be.

"We're redefining what local government does," says Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

"We're redesigning the machine," says Mr. Neall. "Instead of being a big car with a V-8 engine, air conditioning and electric locks, we may end up with a mid-sized car that's more economical, but still gets you where you need to go."

Reforms of local governments, which expanded as revenues poured in during the 1980s, are long overdue. As nightmarish as the budget crisis is right now, it will serve a useful purpose if it forces governments to become more efficient.

County executives all over the region talk about "downsizing" government, about turning the big car into a mid-sized model. This is not mere rhetoric.

In Prince George's, County Executive Parris N. Glendening has either left vacant or eliminated 1,200 positions, a 22 percent reduction in 15 months. Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden has abolished 300 jobs. In Anne Arundel, Mr. Neall is streamlining the entire executive branch, eliminating some high-ranking positions and merging several offices.

County executives are doing this now out of financial necessity. When the economy improves, drastic cost-saving measures will end. But it seems fairly certain that local government will look markedly different than it did before the economy plummeted. The days of government trying to be all things to all people, no matter what the cost, are over.

"Even when the recession is over, no local government is going to bounce back to the easy growth we had for the last 10 years," said Mr. Glendening. "Community by community, we're going to have to establish priorities."

Said Mr. Neall, "We have tried giving government all the money we can possibly stand, to the point where people are saying, 'Read my lips, no new taxes.' Why not go the other way and try a different type of government, one that's more interactive with the people, one that does a limited number of things very well?"

In Anne Arundel, the new, different government might not go in and clean up every community that needs it. "But we might buy them a Dumpster," Mr. Neall said. The government might not be able to supply paid referees for children's soccer leagues. "But we might train volunteers."

In Prince George's, government might offer less in the way of public transportation or recreation in order to do more in education, public safety and senior services. "We're going to see less and less activity in some things that were nice, but not essential," Mr. Glendening said.

Anti-tax sentiment remains strong enough that a general tax increase to support these niceties is out of the question. If some citizens want certain extras -- and at every budget hearing there are those who do -- they may have to pay for them through fees.

Besides making governments think twice about what they offer citizens, the budget crisis also is forcing them to reconsider how they do business. More than simply cutting waste, governments are becoming more entrepreneurial, developing public-private partnerships, organizing volunteer programs and coordinating branches of government that historically have functioned independently, whether it made sense or not.

Mr. Neall, for example, sees no reason why Anne Arundel has to have separate personnel, data processing and administrative offices for both the Board of Education and county government. He'd like to combine them. This year, he persuaded a reluctant school board to bid its insurance with the county, an unprecedented move that netted $2 million in savings.

Mr. Neall knows he is treading on dangerous ground here. As witnessed by the recent furor over his amendment to the state Budget Reconciliation Act, which gives county governments the right to cut school budgets until the end of the fiscal year, the separation of powers between schools and government is a volatile issue. Mr. Neall believes governments should have more permanent authority over school spending, but he is one of the few who do.

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