The Carroll commissioners approved only a few tweaks to their proposed 2004 budget yesterday during the final scheduled work session on the spending plan, which still could be scrambled by impending state cuts.
The most significant change approved yesterday would add $3 million to the county's agricultural land-preservation program to offset a lack of state funding for preservation.
The commissioners said they were satisfied overall with the budget, which includes $245 million in operating money and $62 million in capital expenses. They are scheduled to vote on the plan Thursday.
The commissioners spent much of yesterday's session venting their frustration at criticisms of a proposed income tax increase, which would amount to $90 on the average county tax return. They said critics overlooked that county budget officials worked for months to trim millions from the spending plan.
Commissioner Dean L. Minnich recited one critic's complaints and then said, "He showed me he had not a clue how much we agonized before we even considered raising taxes."
The commissioners have spent the past month arguing that increases to the income tax and to the recordation tax homebuyers pay when they settle are necessary because of increased demands created by residential growth.
They have said they hope to place the bulk of growth-related expenses on those fueling the population increase.
In tandem with the tax increases, the commissioners plan to raise the impact fees developers pay when they procure building permits. Those fees would rise about $2,500 for single-family homes and $4,000 for townhouses if the commissioners approve the increases this month. The extra expense often trickles down to new homebuyers.
"We want growth to pay for growth," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "That's the key."
That logic did not assuage a handful of conservatives, who lambasted the commissioners at a hearing last week for raising taxes instead of making more cuts.
Some people won't listen to any explanation for tax hikes, Gouge and Minnich complained yesterday. The county last raised taxes in 1996.
In addition to the acrimony over taxes, the cloud of state-imposed cuts to programs jointly supported by the county and state hangs over the conclusion of the budget process.
County Budget Director Ted Zaleski said he would not be surprised if cuts force the commissioners to change their plans after they approve a budget next week. He said he is still not sure which parts of the budget might be most affected by cuts.
The budget includes enough money for all county employees to receive a 3 percent raise next year, but the commissioners have held off on approving those raises because they want wiggle room if further cuts are required.
The county's social service officials have said they expect to get as much as 20 percent less than expected in state aid once Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signs the state budget.