Officials begin review of budgets Increases sought in public safety, education spending

'Hold-the-line' plan

In election year, tax rate expected to remain stable

March 16, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners will begin meetings today to review the Carroll budget director's recommendations for a $224 million spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The meetings will give department heads an opportunity to seek funding for projects left out of the recommendations but may also call into question some of the projects that were approved.

Budget director Steven D. Powell is recommending that the county spend $180 million on day-to-day operating expenses -- 7 percent more than this year. He is also proposing spending $43.7 million on big-ticket items, such as school and road improvements, which is 15.4 percent less than this year.

The recommendations are based on meetings Powell and members of his staff have had with department heads to determine their needs and the county's ability to fund them should the property tax rate remain at $2.62 per $100 of assessed value.

The tax rate is not likely to change. This is an election year and the commissioners will emphasize thrift in their final budget.

"There's not a lot of excitement in these budgets," Powell told the County Commissioners last week. Overall, the recommendations reinforce priorities the commissioners set last year, "focusing on public safety and education," he said. "It is definitely a hold-the-line budget."

A $4.86 million increase is proposed for education and an $821,351 increase for police and fire protection. "There are no new initiatives," Powell said.

His recommendations would maintain all the county's current programs, Powell said.

Powell is recommending that the county start backing away from contributing to programs that are not directly related to county government. He envisions a three-year phase-out of contributions to the Civil Air Patrol, the Maryland Academy of Sciences, the Maryland Historical Society and the Forest Conservancy District Board, beginning with deep cuts in fiscal 1999.

The recommendations are more symbolic than substantive. The savings from reduced funding would amount to $3,995 in fiscal ** 1999. If the funding were eliminated, the total savings would be $12,355.

Similarly small savings or expenditures will likely be debated in the commissioners' meetings with department heads over the next three weeks.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, for example, expressed concern during Powell's budget briefing last week that the commissioners are spending tens of thousands of new dollars to fight crime, but are keeping funding for programs to aid victims or potential victims of crime at the same level as this fiscal year.

"We need to take a hard look at the level of services" being offered by the county, Brown said. "We are not providing a nickel more, but they go hand-in-hand with law enforcement."

The $159.4 million budget proposed by the school board exceeds Powell's recommendation by $1.4 million. If the commissioners accept the school board proposal, that extra money would have to be found elsewhere in the county budget, Brown said.

The commissioners could be faced with such choices as whether to cut money from the Youth Services Bureau to pay for a school program, Brown said.

Powell warned the commissioners that the choices are not going to get easier. He predicts that the county will have to make up a $543,407 deficit in fiscal 2001 and that county revenues will not exceed expenses by a comfortable margin until fiscal 2004. Even then, the $5.2 million projected surplus would exceed expenses by only 2.2 percent, he said.

The school board, which receives the largest portion of the county budget each year, must begin now to prepare for the expected shortfall rather than deal with it on a year-by-year basis as in the past, Powell told the commissioners.

The focus today, when the commissioners will meet with the liquor board, the Board of Zoning Appeals, and representatives from animal control and the county's soil conservation district, will be on Powell's recommendations for fiscal 1999, which begins July 1.

The liquor board and the soil conservation district plan to ask the commissioners to give them more than Powell is proposing. The liquor board, which would receive a $188 increase next year, wants a $7,280 increase to pay overtime for two liquor inspectors. The board received $43,065 this year.

The soil conservation district, which received $156,780 this year, would get a $5,055 increase. But the district will ask the commissioners for $33,750 more to pay the salary and fringe benefits of a new planner.

The animal control department's $446,910 budget would be cut $23,809, but the department is not seeking additional money.

Neither is the Board of Zoning Appeals, which would see this year's $50,460 budget increase by $931.

The commissioners will meet with department heads through April 2 to discuss funding issues.

Afterward, they will spend three days preparing a proposed budget, which they will present at a public hearing May 7. The commissioners plan to adopt the budget May 28.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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