Hayden's balanced diet

April 29, 1992

It wouldn't be fair to say everyone wants a piece of the just-unveiled budget pie in Baltimore County. Some would reduce it to a budget cookie. Others would be content only with a seven-layer cake.

The education department, never reticent when the topic is money, says County Executive Roger B. Hayden's proposal is the most regressive since the Great Depression. Others are less hyperbolic, if no less displeased. Mr. Hayden's proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 cuts most department budgets 7 or 8 percent, recreation and parks by 10. No county employee will get a cost-of-living raise for the second straight year, though many would get longevity or step increases for moving up in job classifications.

One of the few expense categories to which Mr. Hayden was generous was the county's "rainy day" reserve. He has proposed putting aside $5.5 million in contingency money, in part because his bean counters fear the state has once again overestimated projected revenues and will come hunting for local appropriations as it did last winter.

Mr. Hayden was elected on a wave of anti-tax sentiment 18 months ago, but is now governing on the isle of realism. His proposal is a commendable one. He didn't devastate the morale of the county work force by eliminating step raises. He wants to maintain district police patrols -- at a level slightly stronger than a year ago. He made cuts in nearly all departments, but didn't shy from becoming the first Baltimore-area executive to propose an increase in the piggyback income tax to raise cash. He knows the day of the state playing sugar daddy to the suburbs is over -- and should be.

Mr. Hayden also braved the politically precarious move of seeking only a halfway increase in the piggyback tax to 55 percent. He could have proposed a rise to 60 percent of the state income tax, as the General Assembly recently allowed, and taken the heavy criticism two years before election time. Politicians learn to plan tax increases early in their terms even before they learn how to kiss babies. Should conditions require Mr. Hayden to return to the well for the full 60 percent piggyback income tax next spring, he'll only re-ignite the anger a year closer to re-election.

To his credit, Mr. Hayden is refusing to bend to the cookie or the cake camps. In his politics of compromise, he's attempting not to decimate services, while taking as small a tax bite as possible.

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