Hitting Bone in the Counties

January 01, 1992

This is the year the budget crisis in Annapolis trickles down to local governments in ways that could profoundly change the quality of life in metropolitan Baltimore. Until now, county legislators have managed to reconcile the books by freezing salaries, trimming services and in a few extreme cases, laying off employees. The forthcoming fiscal surgery, though, will hit bone.

Aid from Annapolis is being cut back substantially, slicing deeply into programs, services and jobs. The counties are likely to scale back social services, road maintenance, snow removal and possibly even trash collection. In Baltimore County, for example, police officers will spend less time cruising in patrol cars to cut costs. In Carroll County, planners are proposing a 44 percent cut in the fiscal 1993 construction program.

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall has put workers on notice that cost of living increases aren't in the cards. Worse, he's hinted that if the county takes the local aid hit now being proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer for the current fiscal year -- $14.9 million -- entire programs and staffs could be eliminated.

The news isn't better for teachers, who won't get any raises again this year. Education, which accounts for half the budget in most places, will suffer substantive cuts. School hours and activities will likely change to make more efficient use of existing resources. Classroom sizes may swell. In Howard, a county that has used its relatively cozy classrooms as a selling point, some classes have already swelled past the optimum school system guideline of one teacher per 25 pupils.

The extent to which this depressing scenario can be rewritten at the local level is limited, unless property taxes are raised. Real relief depends on the unlikely prospect of Annapolis lawmakers suddenly developing the stomach to impose new taxes.

Still, this will be the year local governments scramble to find additional revenue. Harford County Community College, which has lost a quarter of its $4.5 million budget to state cuts, may have to consider charging for parking and other services. Baltimore County wants to make adult basketball and softball self-supporting through user fees. Some jurisdictions are even talking higher taxes. But most local elected leaders want to hold the line. They'll have to cut local services to do so, though, despite the screams of protest.

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