Balto. Co. has budget surplus $4.9 million extra may go to offset state budget cuts

September 15, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

The bean counters have counted, and Baltimore Count officials have a pleasant surprise -- a $4.9 million budget surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

But Hayden administration officials say the money won't come close to covering the $20 million to $30 million the county expects to lose this year when the state cuts aid to local governments in an effort to deal with its own budget deficit.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden said that without the cash to cover state cuts, he is preparing to reduce the size of county government still further and will look at all county programs and services.

Because its tax rate must be set before the start of the fiscal year on July 1, the county has few options for generating extra income when state aid is cut during the year, other than imposing minor nuisance taxes and fees.

Last spring, the local piggyback income tax was raised from 50 to 55 percent of the state total. No further tax increases can be imposed until July 1, 1993.

The county did find an extra $3.3 million when the books were closed on fiscal year 1992, which ended June 30. County officials had anticipated having $1.6 million left over, so the windfall brought the total surplus to $4.9 million.

Half of the surplus came from savings in the administration of employees' health insurance. The rest came from money appropriated in earlier years but not spent, according to finance director James R. Gibson Jr. and county lobbyist Pat Roddy. The total county budget last year was $1.1 billion.

The 1992 surplus compared poorly with the fiscal 1991 surplus of $11 million, and with surpluses of more than $23 million in 1987 and 1988.

Nevertheless, with the unexpected $3.3 million, the county will have a total of $13 million set aside in this year's rainy day fund.

The problem is that it will rain hard this year.

Instead of a surplus, state government had a $60 million shortfall last fiscal year, and a $500 million shortfall is expected this year.

In July, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said that Baltimore county's share of the $60 million shortfall was $4.7 million. County officials said they expect that the new round of state budget cuts to increase the county's share to more than $27 million.

If that happens, Baltimore County's $13 million rainy day fund will not be much of an umbrella.

Mr. Hayden said he may not announce specific new budget cuts until December. However, he already has put administration officials to work creating a priority list of county services, so he'll know what to cut and by how much.

Mr. Hayden and Administrative Officer Merreen E. Kelly said officials already have cut everything they felt was not essential -- and a few things considered essential.

For example, the county police force is more than 150 officers below its authorized strength. The fire department is short nearly 100 fire fighters. This year, the County Council juggled money to enroll 40 new police recruits.

Now, Mr. Hayden must decide where to cut deeper.

In a document circulated among county department heads, Mr. Kelly said that the county's dilemma involves one question: "Can a good and needed service be afforded?"

"We now need to make . . . difficult decisions on what services are most valuable . . . and which services we can no longer afford," he wrote.

Mr. Kelly has instructed county department heads to list every function they perform for the public or for other county agencies, along with the cost.

After being reviewed by the budget office, the inventory will go to Mr. Hayden, who will use it to decide where to make the cuts.

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