Tense Times in Baltimore County

February 15, 1993

Towson was one nervous place last week.

Until Thursday afternoon, when Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden announced his orders for layoffs of government workers and a major reduction and restructuring of public services, the tension around the county seat was so thick you could have cut it with the executive's budget ax.

For government employees at all levels, this was uncharted territory. Never before had the county laid off workers and slashed public services to such an extent. For many with mortgages to pay and mouths to feed, it was a calamity: Nearly 400 people will lose their jobs. Libraries, senior centers and health centers will close. Other measures that didn't make the news accounts will nonetheless have a real impact on the quality of life for many residents.

That will likely lead to a second wave of tension for Baltimore countians in the months ahead. Mr. Hayden's announcement killed the suspense for county employees worried about pink slips. But now many citizens will wonder how they'll be affected by the cuts. Some people already know they'll have to travel farther to reach a library or obtain a permit or visit a senior center. Weeks or months will probably pass before the significant cuts to environmental protection, recreation and parks and other less-publicized areas are felt.

Hayden administration officials saw Black Thursday as inevitable and necessary, especially with the apparent reluctance among pols and public alike for another local tax increase. It was determined that after the free-spending days of the 1980s and the dwindling revenues of the recent recessionary years, the government had to be streamlined if the county were to avoid facing massive deficits every year. Out with the "Closest to the People" concept of former executive Dennis Rasmussen; in with the Hayden creed that government can no longer be all things to all people.

Even after the big announcement, optimists around Towson voiced the hope that the cuts would be restored in an improved economy. Realists, meanwhile, noted that this unprecedented event should be read as the official, door-slamming end to the county's long-standing status as the suburban haven in the region. Other subdivisions now vie for that role, as Baltimore County grows older and poorer and, in many ways, increasingly resembles the troubled city it surrounds.

To be sure, the county is still a pleasant place to live for most of its inhabitants. Only now it has a reduced government structure and lowered levels of service that residents could have some trouble getting used to -- at least early in the wake of Black Thursday.

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