Political Fitness: No Pain, All Gain

COMMENT

October 16, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Growth may be the foremost issue of the campaign for Carroll County commissioner, but most of the candidates seem reluctant to talk about the hard choices that will have to be made in the next four years.

All the candidates talk about "controlling" or "managing" growth in their stump speeches or at candidate forums, but only a few offer concrete solutions to deal with the consequences of the rampant development that has produced crowded schools, congested roads and a less bucolic landscape.

While it is true that any politician who levels with the voters isn't likely to get elected (See: Mondale, Walter, 1984 presidential nominee on the deficit and taxes), sugar-coating reality only makes problem-solving that much more difficult.

The six commissioner candidates all say they will make sure the county follows its adequate facilities law. But few address how the county will pay for the public infrastructure -- schools, roads, sewer and water systems -- that is needed?

At nearly every forum, the candidates avoid getting pinned down on that issue. Two weeks ago, the candidates gathered at a meeting of the county chapter of the Maryland Municipal League. Only Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown, a Republican, and former county sheriff Grover "Sam" Sensabaugh, a Democrat, made any mention for the need to pay for public amenities.

Both candidates advocated increasing the county's impact fee so that "growth will pay for itself."

What a politically appealing ring that slogan has. If the new residents' children are crowding the schools and if their cars are congesting the roads, newcomers should bear the cost of solving the problems -- or so the logic goes.

The reality is that even if the county were to double its current impact fee -- $2,700 per house except in the Freedom District where it is $3,500 -- the county still would not raise enough money to build the needed amenities, particularly if the county continues its pay-as-you-go practice of building public works.

Last year, the county collected a little more than $3 million in impact fees. The price tag for the planned Oklahoma Middle School alone is about $12.5 million, let alone the other schools that will be needed.

What the impact fees could represent -- as Messrs. Brown and Sensabaugh pointed out -- is an income stream that the county could use to leverage more borrowing. By floating more bonds, the county would increase its borrowing beyond traditional low levels here.

Donald I. Dell, an incumbent commissioner up for re-election, doesn't advocate increasing the impact fees, but has said that he is not adverse to raising the county's piggy-back tax. He, too, would like to show the New York bond rating agencies a stream of income that the county government could rely on to service a heavier debt load.

Other candidates are reluctant to discuss the issue of raising more money to pay for needed schools because they sense voters are extremely hostile to government spending. They feel more comfortable saying that they will work with the county's legislative delegation in Annapolis to obtain more money from the state government for schools and cut waste, fraud and abuse.

Those painless promises are misleading. Given the difficulty the county is having getting money from the state now, obtaining more money will be even more difficult.

Candidates who continue to put forth these unrealistic answers in a bald-faced quest for votes are only making their jobs that much harder should they win office.

The unfortunate reality is that this county is like a family that has outgrown its house. Another bedroom is needed to accommodate the newborn. The household income isn't sufficient to pay for the addition in cash, but if one of the parents works a little overtime or takes a second job, the household income will be large enough to make the monthly payment on a loan.

None of the candidates wants to talk publicly about raising the property tax rate which has stayed at $2.35 for five years. If other attempts to increase county revenue fall short, that rate may have to rise.

The commissioners are supposed to be this county's leaders. The public may be in a horrendous anti-tax mood, but anyone seeking a leadership position has to lay out the reality. Building schools, expanding sewer and water systems, creating parks and building roads takes money. Even the most smooth-talking campaigner can't avoid that reality.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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