No new county taxes mean tough choices

Comment

April 09, 2000|By Mike Burns

THE GOOD news is that county property taxes aren't going up. There's no talk of raising the current tax rate of $2.62 per $100 assessed valuation. Assessed values of existing homes and property have barely moved. The state piggyback income tax rate stays at 55 percent.

The bad news is that the county expects to get only about $10 million more than last year, according to the county budget office. That's not much of an increase for an operating budget of more than $200 million planned for next fiscal year.

Besides, county tax collections for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, are more than $1 million short of last year's projections.

In addition, there's a $66 million proposed budget for capital construction projects, such as roads, schools and animal shelters.

The county's day-to-day operating budget will increase by nearly 5 percent. The fiscal 2001 capital budget drops by $6 million.

As usual, the Carroll school system will take the biggest bite of the apple. It is asking for more than $100 million from the county for the fiscal year.

Already there are rumblings from the county commissioners about open-handed funding while the education department is under sharp public criticism for wasteful management of construction projects and for reluctance to start an outside performance audit of the school system.

Last year, you may recall, the commissioners withheld $1 million from the school budget as token pressure to get the school system to authorize and proceed with an audit. (This spring, the school board finally chose an auditor -- the highest bidder -- to carry out the three-year evaluation.)

Not only is the education budget request half of the county's total planned budget. The school system is asking for an increase of $15 million this year.

It's easy enough to trim the school board's request, which is rarely accepted without cuts, if you're trying to squeeze it to meet your revenues and income.

But the request this year contains added essentials that must be funded. To open two new schools, Shiloh Middle and Century High, over the next year, the education department needs money for new staff and textbooks and supplies. That's more than $1.7 million just to open and operate these new facilities.

You can't just build a school and be done with it: There are start-up and recurring costs for each facility. That's why there is always a suggestion to increase the number of trailer classrooms (well over 100 in use now) and park them at existing school sites.

So the county commissioners will have to budge on that part of the education budget request. They're less likely to do so on the school board's proposal to raise teacher salaries by 4 percent, despite the well-publicized shortage of teachers in the nation and the escalating competition by school systems to attract qualified instructors.

With the school board's request to add more than 80 teachers this year, the commissioners will likely focus on that classroom need rather than raising salaries. The extra personnel for new schools, for trimming class sizes, for meeting special-education requirements -- these have to be the county's priority.

The complete local education budget request is partly based on the state's financial surplus, which the governor and the legislature seem inclined to devote to aid for schools. If the county comes up a bit short, perhaps the state can find extra funds. But that's no certainty, and the Carroll commissioners must decide on what the county schools need and what the county can afford, without passing the buck.

Granted, there's the credibility gap mentioned above. The fact that the county prosecutor and the grand jury are investigating a long list of questionable actions by school construction supervisors does not inspire great confidence in the school board or the system administration when it comes to ladling out taxpayer funds.

But the commissioners should be aware that operating budgets are one thing, facilities and construction another. There's no reason to make major cuts in operating expenses as a gesture of displeasure.

Two other pressing public needs are in the budget requests.

The volunteer fire companies are asking for more money, another $350,000 a year, because of the continuing increase in ambulance calls made by emergency medical personnel. They were up 10 percent last year. The county saves a lot of money by using volunteer fire companies. It needs to fully fund the vital ambulance service.

The sheriff needs staff and resources to operate the new 100-bed addition to the detention center. That's the same as the new schools: They've got to have the money in order to operate.

But Sheriff Kenneth Tregoning also wants to add more deputies to increase road patrols by his department. He'd like to fund those extra positions with money paid by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service to house illegal aliens in the county jail.

Since the Maryland State Police resident trooper program is already paid to provide primary law enforcement coverage for Carroll County, the sheriff's proposal may be too ambitious at this time. The commissioners might consider taking the federal payments and using them for existing sheriff department needs.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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