Budgeting in good times Government: As recession memories linger, counties know not to quickly spend windfall.

May 08, 1998

AS THE region's county governments hammer out budgets for fiscal 1999, an encouraging theme is emerging.

Though more revenue is flowing to public coffers than in years past, elected leaders seem aware that it would be irresponsible to use the rosy economy as an excuse to give every department and interest group all that they desire.

New programs, new staff, pay raises -- these expenses continue long after boom times have gone bust. Past administrations have made the mistake of using unexpected surpluses to fund ongoing expenses. When the economy soured, taxpayers were stuck; governments had to raise taxes or lay off employees and cut services.

Today, with the '90s recession that terminated the boom '80s still fresh in their memories, county executives are well aware that revenues can change dramatically.

So in Baltimore County, Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger would use an $82 million surplus solely for one-time expenditures, including repairs to long-neglected school buildings and road resurfacing. In Howard, Charles I. Ecker plans to spend most of a $16 million surplus on one-time expenses. Anne Arundel Executive John G. Gary wants to pump millions into school maintenance and other nonrecurring costs. In Harford County, Eileen M. Rehrmann's budget requires that surplus money beyond an "unappropriated fund balance" only be used for one-time expenses. The Carroll County commissioners followed a similar tack.

In some corners, this strategy has triggered discontent, notably among educators. Occasionally, they have a point. In Howard, for instance, the cry for money for new school programs postponed in prior years seems to outweigh demands for the meager tax relief that Mr. Ecker, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, insists on providing.

By and large, however, governments are right to be wary of committing taxpayers to ongoing costs. Creation of programs and staffing increases must be based on long-term affordability, not on the recent windfall.

Pub Date: 5/08/98

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