HAGERSTOWN -- Imagine that an uninvited houseguest is rapidly devouring the contents of your refrigerator.
For members of the Maryland Association of Counties who met here yesterday, the state's increasing budget deficit has taken on a resemblance to that hungry and unwelcome intruder: It keeps eating away at their budgets, and there's no way they can stop it.
Elected officials from counties across Maryland said yesterday that wrestling with budget shortfalls brought on by state cutbacks and a slumping economy has become their top priority.
The budget crunch is made worse because it comes on the heels of a decade of steady growth that forced the need for more schools, roads, police and fire services, officials say.
Defining counties' mission
"You've got to understand that this has never happened before," said Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall. "The missions of state and local governments are going to be totally redefined when this is over."
Yesterday's agenda included seminars on a wide range of issues, including topics such as "Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances" and "Should Counties Provide Training to Their Corrections Personnel?"
But most of the focus was on ramifications of the added $220 million state deficit that was announced yesterday.
The day began with news of shortfall delivered by Frederick W. Puddester, deputy secretary of the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning, at a seminar on Maryland's fiscal crisis.
It ended with a speech by Gov. William Donald Schaefer warning elected officials that the new numbers will mean cuts that affect their constituents as well as his.
"This next cut will affect people, really very directly," Governor Schaefer said.
Mr. Schaefer told the crowd of about 300 that while he would not propose a tax increase, he would be "willing to look at one" if someone else proposed it.
He said he has gotten gun shy about proposing tax increases because of past experience.
"I took that hit, as a big spender, for five months and it was not a pleasant experience," he said.
But local officials said yesterday that there is a reluctance to propose a tax increase at any level because people aren't yet convinced that government is operating efficiently.
"The perception becomes reality when you're talking about the public sector," Mr. Neall said.
There is also widespread feeling that with the economy in a slump, many people cannot afford to pay additional taxes, county leaders said.
"People just aren't ready for this," said Baltimore County Councilwoman Berchie Lee Manley, R-1st.
County officials at the session said they have already been forced to slash and trim budgets because of the last round of state cuts.
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said that his county government spending is down 19 percent from last year and that the budget crunch has forced him to reduce staffing levels to the point where he has 205 fewer positions than last year.
The association also elected Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray as its president for 1992.