After Learning From The Past, Let's Seize Carroll's Future

THE WAY IT IS

Current Problems Make '80s Surplus Debate A Curiosity

January 19, 1992|By Jeff Griffith

Janus, the ancient Roman god of doorways, beginnings and the rising and setting of the sun, has two faces, one looking backward, the other forward.

He gives his name to January, the month for looking both to the past and to the future.

One who looks back 10 years in Carroll must be amazed at the shift in attitudes.

Perhaps the hottest issue of the 1982 commissioners election was the surplus. Prior boards had developed a policy of underestimating tax revenues, then carrying each year's unbudgeted surplus into the next year's capital budget for allocation to land acquisition and building and road construction.

Rather than move on the projects, the county allowed many to remain on a technically active account status, while investing budgeted amounts in high-yield, short-term investments, where return rates of about 20 percent were sometimes available in the late 1970s and early '80s.

So, the surplus gotbigger. Some claimed the total exceeded $40 million by 1982.

Thatclaim is probably the result of misinterpretation. Nonetheless, thatany significant surplus could have existed must create wistful feelings now at the County Office Building.

When three new commissioners took office in 1982, they had a mandate: Reduce the surplus. They combed through capital accounts, re-evaluating projects and eliminating those that were paper-only. Money involved was allocated to needed projects or operations.

Today's board has a far less enviable task: Reduce the deficit.

In 1982, many taxpayers said they were prepared to pay higher taxes to provide needed services, such as schools, libraries and senior centers. So, the commissioners built schools, libraries and senior centers.

In less than 10 years, the county's grievously underfunded school budget doubled. Tax rates remained fairlystable, increasing at a rate of less than 2 percent per year. Meanwhile, population increased by about a third.

Fueled by population growth, economic development and tourism expansion, the county's revenue base grew, making new programs possible and providing enhancementsto those in place.

The county was on a roll.

Today's commissioners face shrinking revenues, economic stagnation and a citizenry that says no tax increase is tolerable, no matter what the need.

Somewhere, the entire nation lost faith in its economy. The Reagan Revolution eliminated revenue-sharing, creating a shortfall of nearly $3 million in the local budget around 1984.

The commissioners didn't even blink. They didn't like replacing federal dollars with local ones,but the economy was so healthy that pain was minimal.

When the feds slashed budgets for education and programs for the aging, the commissioners picked up the slack.

The feds now are long gone from most local programs, the national economy is sagging, the state has madeyet more cuts and the commissioners are finally out of resources.

What went wrong?

The easy answer is that the huge federal deficitsucked the fire out of the economy. The harder reality is that the people of the United States, of Maryland and of Carroll County have lost confidence in themselves and in their governments.

What can commissioners do?

Look back, like Janus, at what works.

Carroll has excellent schools, a low tax rate, plenty of moderately priced homes, attractive industrial sites, a hard-working labor pool, a convenient location and a nearby metropolis featuring first-rate cultural andsports attractions.

The commissioners can start the recovery of confidence by promoting what the county has to offer -- which is plenty.

Then, like Janus, we can look forward to the hard work of digging out of this fiscal and emotional hole we've dug.

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