Budget uncertainty could force later cuts

Schools may bear brunt of Md. spending decisions

Carroll County

April 13, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Even with the General Assembly gone from Annapolis and the state budget momentarily balanced, Carroll officials remain nervous that state spending cuts could force last-minute changes to the county's budget.

Under the spending plan approved by the General Assembly, Carroll would escape without serious damage, said county budget director Ted Zaleski.

But the plan includes about $300 million in new tax revenue that could be wiped out by vetoes from Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A $300 million budget hole could lead to cuts in state school spending and aid to local colleges, libraries and hospitals.

Such institutions might then turn to the county commissioners for more money.

Faced with such requests, the commissioners, who have not even mentioned the possibility of raising taxes, could either shift their spending priorities or leave county schools and other programs short of their projected budgets for 2004.

"We absolutely expect to be in that dilemma to some degree," Zaleski said.

The situation could worsen next year, Zaleski said, with the county already projecting that it will be unable to pay for all existing services and the state projecting another serious budget shortfall.

"We can handle this year pretty well," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "The real pinch comes next year."

Minnich added that next year county residents will see in black and white why tax revenue that was gained from residential growth isn't enough to keep up with service demands created by that growth.

"We're going to have to come up with another answer," he said.

The commissioners plan to release their proposed budget for fiscal 2004 -- which begins July 1 -- this month.

They have scheduled a public hearing on the spending plan for May 8 and plan to pass the budget in late May.

The budget recommended by county staff includes about $239 million in operating expenses and $53 million for one-time road and construction projects.

More than half of the budget would go to Carroll schools, though school officials requested about $4 million more than they are allotted in the county staff proposal.

Aside from money to help pay for road maintenance -- which is down to $6 million this year from the usual $9 million -- the county budget is not heavily contingent on state money.

But because the state and county share costs of schools, colleges and hospitals, state budget cuts send the administrators of such institutions scrambling to county officials for more money.

Public schools are an expected target of the cuts Ehrlich says he will make to stave off a tax increase. State legislators have already shifted money away from a fund that supplements teacher raises in order to cover other holes in the state budget.

And many predict that the ambitious Thornton Commission funding formula for public schools will have to be pushed back.

Although cuts to Thornton money would affect larger school systems more than Carroll, the county could still lose several million dollars it planned to have for schools.

"It just doesn't seem clear that the state is able to fund Thornton," Zaleski said.

School system budget supervisor Walter Brilhart has warned that the district will be in trouble financially if any number of cuts are made to the state budget.

County schools could lose $3.1 million if Thornton money is cut and another million in state money dedicated to teacher raises.

"We could have a real mess on our hands as we walk through the month of May," Brilhart said.

"The news is not good. The outlook is not good. ... And we may have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that we will have to take this entire budget apart and start all over."

Budget officials at Carroll Community College also are worried about possible cuts. Universities and community colleges have been targets for reductions throughout this year's budget crunch.

The community college has already lost $550,000 combined from this year's and next year's budgets, and officials will be happy if that's all they lose, said Alan Schuman, executive vice president for administration.

"We really don't have any confidence that we know what amount we'll be working with," Schuman said. "We really have no intelligence that suggests to us that we'll somehow be spared."

Schuman said further cuts could lead to increased tuition and an inability to hire full-time faculty members.

He said that the community college might request more money from the commissioners but would not count on a financial boost from the county.

Some Carroll programs were left entirely in the cold by the legislature. The county's Goodwill Industries and hospice programs, for example, got none of the money they requested and were left only with the promise that they will be at the top of the list for funding in the 2005 budget.

All of the uncertainty makes this one of the least pleasant budget years in recent memory, Zaleski said.

Ehrlich is under no obligation to make all of his cuts by the time the commissioners approve their budget next month, so the uncertainty could last into the summer.

"As far as the state, we're still trying to figure out what it will all mean to us and when we'll know," Zaleski said.

"But we at least have to acknowledge the possibility that even after we pass our budget, we'll have to go back to the table."

Sun staff writer Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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