Local Governments Cope With New Realities When Governments Don't Have Money

January 05, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH

Maryland's managers of local government, men such as Anne Arundel County's Robert R. Neall, a Republican, and Democrat Parris N. Glendening of Prince George's, find themselves confronted at the start of 1992 with hemorhaging budgets, a bewildered citizenry and a government structures that don't quite fit.

The demands of educating and protecting those who obey the law -- while sheltering and feeding those who don't -- intensify. The number of voters who want low-cost, high-service, crime-free neighborhoods and schools with the lowest possible teacher-student ratio are exceeded only by the number who want no new taxes.

The parable of loaves and fishes might seem appropriate.

In the 1980s, county executives marveled as the money rolled in from brisk housing development, from sales tax revenues generated by unbridled consumer confidence and from a state economy that flourished in the ambit of Washington and seemed immune to the vicissitudes of economic cycles.

Thus far into the 1990s Maryland is mired in a deep and lingering recession. Government leaders are called upon to re-shape over-committed, under-funded service systems, to find better ways to work together and to help their constituents accept new realities.

Herewith, a glimpse at the management and educational styles adopted by two of Maryland's county leaders.

First, Mr. Neall:

Where, the woman demanded, was the man with the whistle, who had been supplied by the county?

"Her six-year-old son would not have a referee for his soccer game, and she thought this was a serious denigration of her quality of life," Mr. Neall recalls. He spends a lot of time talking to community groups and taking calls from people with complaints.

"I calmed her down. Surely, I said, a high school student or a parent or a spectator could be the referee," he suggested.

In the 1990s, twice-a-week garbage disposal, let alone soccer referees, might not be there for the citizens of some jurisdictions. Money to buy lovely parks such as Quiet Waters might not be there. A $50,000-evening at Kinder Park with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra almost certainly won't be there, Mr. Neall said.

The symphony visit may seem an extravagance in the light of massive budget cuts, threatened layoffs and even more convincing denigrations of life as many had come to expect it. Yet that is not the point, Mr. Neall says.

"Fifty thousand was very reasonable. Ten thousand people came to listen. It was something nice to do.

"But there isn't enough money anymore. Maybe we'll have the Naval Academy Band or the Chesapeake Student Symphony," he said.

Each county government may not be able to have a department of aging, or even a parks department. The scope and sophistication of local government may not be supportable in the future.

"We have tried not to affect our customers. We're working longer and harder with fewer dollars to give people the same level of service. We' re trying to move as much change as we can through the system without busting the rivets," he says.

But he sees the county's 4,000-member work force falling 10 or 15 percent over the next few years.

In the future, a commercial quick-lubrication shop will change oil for the county's cars -- not the county's $40,000-a-year mechanics, who may find themselves reduced in number and working exclusively on specialized problems of police cars and fire engines.

Mr. Neall wants more park land for his county, but he's using bequests and trying to inherit land unused by Fort Meade. He's "hunkering down" with developers to get a portion of what they have.

He reads about the year in the decade of the '80s when revenue grew by 13 percent.

dTC "When they closed the books they still had $60 million. They couldn't spend the money fast enough," he said.

Today, he says, referring to both individual wage earners and the counties they live in: "Your take home pay won't take you home."

The voter is right to demand a hard look at government spending, he says. Asked if he's ready to ask his county for more taxes, he delivers a sharp kick to the underside of a polished meeting table in front of him.

"People think government officials are setting their money on fire. They have to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that government is listening. And the people I've talked to are not convinced."

Nor is he.

This year, under state law passed in 1987, Maryland is obliged to spend an additional $173 million on its public schools. The program is called APEX -- and Mr. Neall thinks the commitment should be removed from the law, leaving just enough to maintain teacher-pupil ratios.

"It's folly for us to think we can do things in 1991 the way we contemplated doing things in 1987. If you were going to buy a Jaguar this year and you lost your job, would you go ahead with buying the car? We have to re-think what we're doing."

Mr. Neall opposed this aid-to-education plan when he was in the General Assembly.

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