After Year In Office, Commissioners Relish Challenge

December 08, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

They campaigned for months, sweating out debates, chowing down rubber-chicken dinners, canvassing crowds morning and night and surviving challenges from 15 other opponents.

And for what? To tell senior citizens that meals and transportation might no longer be provided to them? To be the embodiment of grim reapers to 600-plus county employees fearing layoffs? To defer purchasing new playground equipment for elementary school students, whose parents planned to contribute?

Carroll Commissioners Julia W. Gouge, the incumbent, and Donald I. Dell and Elmer C. Lippy, the newcomers, ascended to office one yearago shrouded by an economic gloom that hasn't dissipated.

Prior administrations received revenue growth hovering around 10 percent every year. This board witnessed a decline in income while entering its first budget process.

Prior administrations were able to start newsocial services, expand government, greatly increase public schools budgets and offer employees raises.

This board has been compelled to restrict growth in government and services, deny salary increases,ask the school system to return money, delay projects, seek assistance from private enterprise and eliminate basic expenditures.

Some who work with the commissioners on budgets and planning say they wouldn't trade places with the leaders for all the corn in Carroll.

Yet the commissioners say they welcome the challenge and have made progress despite adversity.

Here is a look at the issues the board hasfaced in its first year, the actions they've taken -- or not taken -- and evaluations from activists.

Budget

The board extended a hiring freeze and travel restrictions, deferred projects, juggled accounts and bargained with the Board of Education to balance a $6 million shortfall in fiscal 1991.

Four months after a scaled-back fiscal1992 budget took effect July 1, the commissioners trimmed $3.2 million to compensate for state cuts. They've avoided layoffs and drastic cuts in services, but make no promises as they await more state cuts.

"Not a week's gone by without some concern for the budget, eitherlast year's, current or the next," said Gouge.

Retaining county employees has been a source of pride for the commissioners, she said.

The commissioners say constantly scrutinizing spending, evaluatingprograms and seeking more efficiency has laid a base for more frugalplanning in the future.

"Not that a deficit is good, but it makesyou set priorities," said Dell.

Education

Dell and Lippy say they set as a goal mending a distrustful and adversarial relationship between the commissioners and top school officials. It's been accomplished, say Board of Education members and school administrators.

"I've been in the system for 28 years, and this is the best relationship I've observed," said Superintendent R. Edward Shilling.

The commissioners were granted power this fall by the General Assembly to make line-item cuts in the school budget and reopen negotiated contracts. But school board President John D. Myers Jr. said he is confident the commissioners will allow education officials to make the tough money decisions.

"The level of respect and trust is at an all-time high," said the nine-year board member.

School board member Cheryl McFalls said the commissioners have demonstrated more interest in education than the past administration by attending nearly every Board of Education meeting.

"It helps them have a better understanding ofour responsibilities and the system," she said.

Environment

Slow progress has been made toward developing a recycling program. County officials are starting the bidding process for a curbside program.

"I think they can do more," said Noreen Cullen, Carroll Earth Care vice chairwoman. "I don't think it's been a strong county priority."

The commissioners absorbed a loss by maintaining a $15-per-ton landfill dumping fee, the lowest in the Baltimore region. They deferred an increase and tabled a proposed residential trash collection charge while continuing work on a comprehensive waste-management plan. They've diverted money from other sources to run a waste disposal system that's supposed to be self-sufficient.

Lippy and Dell have expressed interest in building a regional waste-to-energy plant, in Carroll or elsewhere, as space diminishes at landfills. But such a project is years off, they acknowledge.

Several environmental activists say they want an environmental department re-established. The commissioners dismantled the original department in a government reorganization, splitting its functions among various agencies.

Social services

Converting space in a county-owned Westminster building into a homeless shelter in October -- in less than a month, using volunteers and donations -- to relieve a growing waiting list perhaps has been the commissioners' best accomplishment.

"I really think they've madean effort to be responsive to people's needs," said Sylvia Canon, director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Inc.

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