Executive challenge

Tough decisions: Budgetary concerns will test the fiscal mettle of local county officials.

January 07, 2002

IT'S QUITE a coincidence. This is an election year, and the area's first-term county executives are weathering the first tests of their financial-management prowess.

Those are two good reasons to pay close attention.

Residents of Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties hadn't seen Janet S. Owens, James M. Harkins and James N. Robey face budgetary problems until recently. Those officials took office in the good old days, way back in 1998, when the buzzing economy was overflowing their coffers.

Now that the economy has tightened and county executives face a challenge, how they respond could determine their political future and, more importantly, their counties' financial health.

FOR THE RECORD - A Monday editorial should have said Howard County is considering using its rainy-day fund but has not tapped it yet. The Sun regrets the error.

So far, they are rising to the task.

Mr. Harkins, the Republican Harford County executive, deserves credit for making a tough call. He was reluctant to do it, but he held his nose and raised the county's income tax rate by 20 percent to avert a budget deficit.

Mr. Robey became the first Howard County executive to dip into his rainy day fund, but he did it when faced with a projected $18 million shortfall. That move came in addition to a previous order that department heads must shave their costs by 10 percent.

In Anne Arundel County, Ms. Owens' top budget official said Friday the county faces a projected $20 million shortfall for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The county has a healthy stream of real estate tax revenue, but not enough. The projected deficit scenario contrasts sharply with the big surpluses Ms. Owens enjoyed in each of her first three years.

The three rookies have their work cut out for them. The budgetary pictures remain fuzzy and in flux, as local and state figures keep coming. Things could get worse after they counties get income tax receipts from the state in mid February.

Mr. Robey might be especially vulnerable.

He runs the country's seventh-wealthiest county, so Howard is hit harder than most because it depends heavily on income tax revenue, which is down.

He can't rule out sensible measures that would raise revenue or sensibly cut government costs, which means a tax increase must be considered.

Ms. Owens and Mr. Harkins also must be ready to respond further to bad economic news.

The area's three first-term county executives all appear to want a second term. So here's a tip for them: Voters will appreciate strong leaders who are able to make the tough choices to serve them well while keeping government fiscally sound.

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