Officials start work on budget

Panel will hear spending requests

March 12, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Faced with too few dollars for too many requests, the county commissioners will begin tomorrow scrutinizing a long wish list of items for the next fiscal year -- everything from $1,000 for birdseed to $35.4 million for a new Westminster high school.

"We will not be able to meet everyone's expectations," county budget director Steven D. Powell said of the budget for fiscal year 2001, which begins July 1. "We're looking at $11 million in new revenue and $3 million in new debt. That leaves about $8 million. Just continuing current services eats up most of that. That's the context under which we're working."

During a Carroll County Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week, Powell blamed the county's financial woes on a lack of substantial industrial and commercial growth. A year-to-date $1.1 million shortfall in income tax revenue also hurt the county's fiscal standing, he said. That figure could change as taxes are collected.

The three-member Board of County Commissioners will hold the first of nine public work sessions on the proposed budget tomorrow. The sessions are scheduled to continue through this month; the commissioners are expected to adopt a budget May 23.

Powell presented his spending recommendations for the fiscal year to the commissioners during a closed meeting Friday. If the panel approves his suggestions, the county budget would be about $268 million, an increase of $5 million from this year's spending plan.

Powell's proposed budget includes about $202 million to cover the day-to-day cost of county government, up from $193 million this year, and $66 million for capital improvements, including new schools and roads, down from about $72 million last year. His proposal does not call for increases in property or income taxes.

The proposed capital spending plan, which pays for construction projects, includes funds for the new Century High in South Carroll and a classroom building at Carroll Community College.

Money for new teachers

School Superintendent William H. Hyde will present his proposed $184.6 million operating budget to the county Board of Education tomorrow night. At the meeting, the school board will review the plan and could make changes. The school budget then will be sent to the commissioners for final approval as part of the overall county budget.

Hyde's operating budget, which covers everything from salaries to textbooks and supplies, includes $2.1 million to create about 65 teaching positions and $542,000 for 20 new instructional positions in special education. The county and state each contribute to the school's spending plan.

Last year, school funding became a divisive issue when, in the 11th hour, the commissioners cut $2.8 million from the school spending plan. More than 400 people attended a public meeting in May to protest the cut.

The commissioners have said they will use the local property and income tax revenue to help pay for capital spending next year instead of issuing bonds.

Traffic relief

Since they took office in November 1998, the commissioners have said they would like to relieve traffic problems, particularly in South Carroll and on Routes 30 and 140.

"I think we take good care of the roads we have, but it's necessary to put some connector roads and service roads in, especially along Macbeth Way in Eldersburg," Commissioner Donald I. Dell said.

Farmland preservation

The commissioners also are considering whether they should step up the pace of farmland preservation.

Carroll's agricultural preservation program allows the county to buy development rights from farmers who want to continue working the land but need money for operating expenses. Since it began the program in 1978, Carroll has preserved more than 31,000 acres.

Last year, the commissioners set aside $4 million for preservation in the county budget, but additional funding is needed if Carroll is to reach its goal of protecting 100,000 acres by 2020.

Industrial growth

Industrial growth is another issue the commissioners are eager to tackle. The commissioners are looking to bolster economic development by slashing fees and simplifying the review process for commercial and industrial expansion -- the types of projects that generate substantial tax revenue.

The commissioners are studying a proposal that would cut review and permit fees by as much as 50 percent for commercial and industrial projects. The dip in fees would cost the county an estimated $168,000 this year and $58,000 in each of the next two years, Powell said.

Businesses provide less than 12 percent of Carroll's tax base, down from 16 percent in 1990 because of a surge in residential development. Over the past decade, the population has swelled from about 125,000 to more than 153,000.

"Carroll is in a difficult position because our industrial tax base is so low," Powell said. "We've been making tiny climbs, but that doesn't get us where we want to be."

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