SOME CARROLL county officials, like anorexics, see fat where there isn't any.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder, found primarily in young women, who have an aversion to food and an obsession with weight loss. Women suffering from this condition may be as thin as beanpoles, yet they look in the mirror and see rolls of fat.
This county seems to be suffering from budgetary anorexia in its own right. Carroll's commissioners apparently feel that the county government is fat because, despite the lowest tax rate in the region, they are slashing expenditures to the bone. If next year's budget were passed as proposed, the civic health of the county would be endangered.
Most residents know by now that the library service will be cut back dramatically. Library branches will be open fewer hours. Fewer books will be acquired. And one of the services that truly enhances the quality of life here will deteriorate.
By creating havoc with the libraries, it appears the commissioners are trying to build a political case for a tax increase.
Cutting back on the schools would galvanize the parents, teachers and a few others. But a large segment of the county doesn't have children enrolled in the schools and doesn't care if class size increases, if textbooks aren't purchased, if schools aren't cleaned every day or if special educational programs are eliminated.
However, cut library services and you can mobilize a lot of people. It is estimated that about 80 percent of the population patronizes the county libraries. If these people can't visit the TC library or borrow books as much as they would like, they'll get angry.
Looking at the list of proposed cuts, it is clear that the commissioners are targeting programs and departments that most citizens agree deserve county support. Why else would the commissioners stop allocating money for worthwhile community organizations such as the Civil Air Patrol, the Carroll County Historical Society or the Arts Council?
Why else would the commissioners gut the funding for organizations that help the most unfortunate in the community? When groups such as the Sexual Abuse Treatment Center, Suicide Prevention, Rape Crisis Intervention Center, the ARC of Carroll County and Change Inc. are told to find money elsewhere, there is a motive behind this seemingly mean-spirited action.
The commissioners know they really have no choice but to raise taxes. However, they don't want to be the ones to initiate the increase. They want Carroll's taxpayers to beg for the increase. When they are up for re-election in 1998, the commissioners want to be able to say they aren't responsible for the tax increases. They were merely complying with the taxpayers' request.
Anyone who had been paying the slightest amount of attention to the county's fiscal affairs could see that the county government was being squeezed. Money that used to cascade down from the federal and state governments has turned into a trickle in recent years.
In the early 1990s, the loss of federal and state revenue produced a round of budget cuts that trimmed a number of programs, reduced the size of many departments and resulted in a series of tight budgets with few frills.
At the same time, Carroll's assessable real property tax base leveled off. For years, the county had been able to maintain a property tax rate of $2.35 per $100 of assessed value because the value of property kept growing and growing. This seemingly bountiful property tax source lulled county commissioners into thinking that they would always have enough to meet the needs of the budget.
The stagnation of revenue from the piggyback income tax only aggravated the problem. Last year, the commissioners were able to dodge the budgetary bullet. A little fiddling here and there, and behold a balanced budget.
This year, no amount of fancy accounting can mask the reality that county government has two options: Drastically cut programs to match the reduced revenue or increase the amount of taxes to finance a minimum level of service.
By staging two weeks of meetings with the agencies, the commissioners are laying out in very stark terms the devastating effect of passing this budget without a tax increase. When people get a good picture of this budget's impact on various departments and programs, they will mobilize behind a tax increase.
This political strategy may be transparent, but it probably will be successful. Cutting the county budget makes about as much sense as an anorexic going on a low-cal diet. What fat remains in the budget is very small and difficult to find. What actually is getting cut are services that people use and need the meat and bone of a county government.
The only question for the commissioners is how much they are going to raise the taxes. Except for a minority of taxpayers who oppose any increase with a religious fervor, most residents will conclude that a slight increase will restore the county budget to a more sensible and healthy balance.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 3/24/96