Hard Choices in Baltimore County

February 20, 1993

Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden's Feb. 11 announcement of layoffs of nearly 400 government workers and reductions of public services has had the predictable result: outrage.

Communities affected by the closing of libraries and senior centers are particularly upset. Citizens are petitioning, faxing and phoning government officials. Public demonstrations are planned. A new union seeking to represent county workers has released a report charging the administration with ignoring less painful ways to balance the budget. (The study makes some good points, though it probably has as much to do with union politics as with county finances.)

Meanwhile, the Hayden administration maintains it had no choice but to make deep cuts. Officials argue that Baltimore County's government structure expanded wildly in the 1980s. Then came a series of brutal blows over the past few years: The recession hit. State aid to the county plummeted. Local revenues dropped as middle-class families moved to other jurisdictions, leaving the county with an older, poorer population in need of increasing amounts of social assistance.

In short, the story of Baltimore County in the early 1990s is that it offered as many public amenities as before, but it had far less money to pay for them. Something had to give. It gave on Feb. 11.

When a person loses a job or a well-used public building is shuttered, that's a sad thing indeed. Sadder still is that the county's fiscal situation won't improve much in years to come. Not coincidentally, the leaner, meaner government shaped by Mr. Hayden reflects the lean revenue projections for a county that is not as affluent as it used to be.

Citizens will have to accept the fact that as the county changes, so must their attitudes. If they hope to continue with the same level of local government service, they're only setting themselves up for more heartache. They'd do better to absorb the hard truth that the new "downsized" model of government will be inherently less reliable than the old, bigger model.

Of course, the old model could be maintained through user fees for services or higher taxes. But, as raucous as the protests over the recent cuts have been, that's how timid the call for new fees and tax hikes tends to be.

Such revenue-raising measures are hateful to many in the

subdivision, especially to well-off folks in the northern reaches who wouldn't object if the rest of the county were sawed off and shipped far, far away. Most residents, though, will likely find themselves facing a hard choice. Do they pay more for the usual services or do they get used to a government that does less for its citizens?

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