Pensions may add to budget pressures

State expected to shift $12 million cost to county

`Message of doom and gloom'

Carroll County

July 02, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Faced with decreases in state funding and the possibility that Maryland might transfer more than $12 million in pension costs to the county budget next year, Carroll officials may need to cut services and programs.

Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget, delivered what he called "another message of doom and gloom" to the commissioners and their department chiefs at a meeting yesterday.

"Think now, and it will make the process easier later," Zaleski said. "No one here wants to cut services, but what would be something you could give up that would hurt the least?"

Of the greatest budgetary concern is the possibility that the state will ask the counties to fund retirement costs for public school teachers, librarians and community college employees. In Carroll, that would amount to about $12.5 million in fiscal 2006, which begins July 1, 2005 - a cost that would soak up nearly all the projected additional revenues, Zaleski said.

"It seems more and more likely that the state will pass on the retirement costs," Zaleski said. "We have to think seriously about what we will do. We are talking about significant changes in services that we offer, and there is not significant money to be found without noticeable effects."

If the additional money can't be found, the retirement costs might force the county to add as much as 15 cents to the property tax rate, now $1.048 for each $100 of the property's assessed value. Should the commissioners be successful in their efforts to levy a transfer tax on real estate transactions next year - a proposal the county's legislative delegation has consistently opposed - even that money would be insufficient to fund pensions, Zaleski said.

"We have things we would like to accomplish with the transfer tax," he said. "If we use that to fund retirement costs, we will still be left without money to do those things."

While attending the Maryland Association of Counties convention last week, Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said state officials spoke frequently about a 12 percent cut in the budget next year.

"The state could balance its budget and save $500 [million] to $600 million without paying teacher retirements," Jones said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich has given his department administrators three choices for fiscal 2006, Zaleski said. Those decisions will all have the potential to affect the county, he said.

"They can ask for the same funding, less funding, or they can eliminate programs," he said. "There is no room for an increase."

The county is already feeling the impact of state budget woes. The state Department of Natural Resources will no longer pay the costs of monitoring streams in the county.

"This is the type of thing we will see even more of," said Steven Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff.

The county is considering building its eighth high school, one that would serve the growing North Carroll area. Carroll may have to pay the estimated $40 million construction costs and hope for state reimbursement in the future. The state school construction budget is $100 million annually for the next five years.

"A high school can cost $50 million," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich. "That says that with $100 million for the whole state, the state is willing to build two new high schools a year and that is all."

Social services could feel the deepest cuts, Zaleski said. George Giese, director of the Carroll County Department of Social Services, said he has a state directive placing the county in charge of emergency shelters, a role the Red Cross has held.

"This is mandated as part of our jobs," Giese said. "This is not a volunteer effort anymore. It is part of our jobs, when something happens."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said the county should brace itself.

"We have to face reality," she said.

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