County Executive Robert R. Neall publicly gave his new economic development coordinator his marching orders Thursday, telling him to determine which government services can be privatized.
The first priority for Michael S. Lofton will be to "lay out a strategy on how to diversify our economy," Neall told an audience of 150 members of the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce.
Lofton will be joining Neall after serving more than 20 years in the state's economic and employment development office, the last fouras deputy director.
"We may be the Houston of 1990, the hardest hit" of any region in the current recession, Neall said. He was one offour county executives taking part in a chamber-sponsored symposium at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory on regional economic development.
The others, Charles I. Ecker of Howard, Parris N. Glendening of Prince George's, and Neal Potter of Montgomery County, said stimulating local economies is their primary concern.
"The engine that drives the well-being of the county is business," Glendening said."We are pro-growth."
Potter, who is planning to open a small business development center jointly with Glendening in the next two weeks, agreed. "The emphasis has to be on maintaining the prosperity of the businesses we now have," he said.
A recurring theme with all four executives was that local government, faced with increased demands and shrinking resources, cannot function as in the past.
"People are worried about what government can realistically provide," Neall said. "People are starting to ask: What can we do without? What is the mission of government? I personally believe that mission is to help people help themselves. We can't solve people's problems for them."
Neall and the other executives said they are looking to economic development because property taxes, the one revenue source over which they have control, cannot do the job.
"The property tax is not an option," Neall said. "People have made that clear to me."
Ecker agreed. "We have 'no-growthers' who say more jobs equals more traffic," he said. "We need to do a better job of communicating the advantages" of business growth here. "Property taxes will go out of sight otherwise."
"I think 'No new taxes!' really means people are fed up with government," Ecker said. "They're saying, 'We don't like what we get.' I believe people will be willing to pay if they are satisfied with the services they get."
"Our process for development has been too slow, too cumbersome, too bureaucratic," Neall said. Privatization, he said, would lead to more jobs and boost the local economy. "The issue is retaining the work force. We have to train people for the future. The community college may be our secret weapon."
To beat the recession -- which Glendening estimated will last at least another 18 months -- the four counties must cooperate more with each other and the state, the executives said.
The "silver lining -- if there is one in the recession cloud -- is innovation and cooperation," Neall said. "If we act decisively and downsize and diversify, local governmentcould come out a great deal stronger than anyone ever thought it could be."