Voodoo economics in Westminster? There's no way commissioners can make $5 million in 'nice' cuts.

January 23, 1996

CARROLL COUNTY'S budget resembles undernourished super-model Kate Moss: It doesn't have a lot of fat. Finding $5 million in superfluous spending, as the county commissioners have requested, will be a most difficult task.

While the commissioners have vowed to do "what is right," valuable programs will have to be slashed. The commissioners must pare about 9 percent of the approximately $55 million that pays for county government operations. Such a reduction will burn more that just fat. County jobs will be lost, and services now taken for granted will disappear.

By comparison with other jurisdictions, Carroll runs a stripped-down government. Local officials never built up a mammoth bureaucracy, as some others did in the boom '80s. Not counting the education department work force, only about 600 people are on the county payroll. At best, a few positions will be eliminated, but the savings won't be great.

The commissioners hope to target those government functions that are "nice" but not "essential." While this sounds reasonable, opinions differ on what is essential and what is nice. Having nicely maintained shoulders on county roads is nice, but to the person who can't see oncoming traffic because of tall grass and weeds, mowing is essential. Even if everyone can agree that mowing should be eliminated, what happens when the county stops staffing senior centers or eliminates road resurfacing?

Given the magnitude of cuts at federal and state levels, the reality is that the county will have to eliminate programs it has struggled to keep going. It has cost Carroll about $20 million over the past five years to continue a number of social and health programs serving children and seniors that used to be state-financed. The wife of Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown recently received notice that even her state-funded child care position is being eliminated.

If Congress and the president agree on a balanced budget, more federal programs will surely fall. Given the tenuous nature of state finances, Carroll won't be receiving additional money, outside of education, to sustain these programs. The commissioners may well deserve the title of wizards if they manage to balance the local budget by eliminating only non-essential services and personnel.

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