On Carroll's Board, Three'll Be a Crowd

COMMENT

November 13, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Threesomes never work.

Carroll County's new board of commissioners will in all probability confirm that bit of folk wisdom.

The newly elected board -- incumbent Donald I. Dell and newcomers W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates -- represents sharply different political perspectives and personalities. Getting the three to work together to address Carroll's problems may require a superhuman effort.

Mr. Dell will have a chip on his shoulder when he takes office with the new board. Although he won re-election, Mr. Dell is smarting that his vote total was the lowest of the three.

Garnering the most votes this election was Mr. Dell's goal because it would have enabled him to retain his position as president. Even though the president has no more power than the other members of the board, Mr. Dell could have claimed to have a stronger mandate from the voters.

With a vote total that surpassed his rivals, Mr. Yates comes into the office without a clear mandate to accomplish anything. His mandate is to stop growth and shrink an already lean county government. During the campaign, he gave few clues as to how he would accomplish these objectives.

Mr. Brown, by contrast, outlined a very specific plan of action to control growth, finance the construction of public infrastructure and reorient the county government to anticipate -- rather than react to -- problems.

It appears that this board will resemble the one that sat from 1986 to 1990, composed of John Armacost, J. Jeffrey Griffith and Julia W. Gouge.

Mr. Armacost and Mr. Griffith were constantly at odds. For any decision to be made, one of the two had to convince Mrs. Gouge to join him. She became the critical swing vote that determined the direction of county government policy.

That same scenario is likely to play out for the next four years.

With Mr. Brown and Mr. Dell taking opposing positions on many issues, Mr. Yates will be the one who determines whether impact fees are raised, private haulers continue to collect county trash, the number of residential building permits will be limited and school construction will accelerate.

Residents won't know for some time whether this board has the determination to address problems, but if its three members decide to avoid them, Carroll's current ills will only worsen.

School construction has been lagging far behind the county's needs. With the population of public school students increasing between 700 and 800 each year, the conditions in the already overcrowded schools in South Carroll and Westminster are reaching intolerable levels.

At the moment, the school system is using about 100 portables at various schools to house students, but there are limits to the number of portables a school can accommodate.

Cafeterias, gyms and restrooms were designed to accommodate maximum number of children. With school populations 20 percent or 30 percent greater than their designed capacity, those services are strained.

During the next four years, parents expect the commissioners to focus on school overcrowding. In the past, the commissioners didn't authorize construction until they had commitments from the state for financing.

This strategy hasn't worked.

If the needed classrooms are to be built, the commissioners will have to spend county money and then attempt to collect state reimbursement later. With the county finances stretched tight, this board will be confronted with the reality of having to raise revenue to pay for school construction.

If the commissioners raise taxes, they will only stir up the ire of voters who believed they were electing a board that would reduce government. If they don't act, parents with children in jam-packed schools will be equally angry. Either way, the board alienates a large bloc of constituents.

The other major issue is economic development. This county has had a dismal record recently of creating jobs. To reduce the amount of commuting and increase the county's tax base, the commissioners will have to reach a consensus on an economic development plan -- and then give it a chance to work.

Putting off decisions was the current board's favored policy.

It wouldn't make a decision on construction of new cells for the jail.

It could not make a decision on a headquarters for the Board of Education.

It could not decide to go ahead with alternative solutions to burying solid waste in the landfill. Avoiding these decisions again will be impossible during the next four years.

It is quite possible that the three commissioners may rise to the occasion and contradict the conventional wisdom that threesomes don't work.

Let's keep our fingers crossed.

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

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