A strong dose of fiscal reality

February 12, 1992

Every day Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden struggles to keep his 1990 no-new-taxes campaign promise.

For Mr. Hayden, who is one of the few executives in the region who has not yet caved in on the pledge, this has meant making some unpopular choices. The latest is to cut $490,000 the county spends to pay for nurses in private and parochial schools -- a relatively small step that has caused a major ruckus.

For 30 years the county has picked up the tab, so it comes as no surprise that parents of private school children feel entitled to the service. The argument goes like this: Parents who pay local taxes actually save the county more than $5,000 a year (the annual cost of educating a student) by sending their children to private school. So they deserve at least some remuneration.

What this argument ignores, however, is that the service is indeed available to children for free -- in the public schools. On a more important level, however, this kind of thinking points up the gap between the expectations and practices of the boom times of the '80s and the fiscal realities of the '90s -- which are fast redefining, and narrowing, the role of government.

Baltimore County, for instance, has already taken a $28 million hit as a result of state budget cuts, and it could lose another $23.5 million, depending on what happens this General Assembly session. Before Mr. Hayden even begins to hammer out a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, he must slash this year's budget to balance the books. And cutting every frill and perk must be high on the agenda.

Certainly, county government can't provide everything to everyone. But if parents choose not to take advantage of the services offered by public schools, they have no more right to expect the county to pay for nurses in alternate settings than to pay for private-school art or music teachers.

That's a strong dose of fiscal reality, but disgruntled parents are going to have to swallow it, however bitter the lesson.

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