Commissioners hear budget briefing

Officials say $540 million in needs still unfunded

Carroll County

February 09, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County has increased its revenues and balanced its budget, but the effort resulted in projects that would be delayed or scrapped and services that would be cut or drastically reduced, officials said yesterday.

In a preliminary presentation to the commissioners, Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget, detailed more than $540 million in school, roads and other infrastructure costs that the county has yet to fund.

"People truly misunderstand that the county is making choices that allow a balanced budget, choices about what not to build and what services it won't offer," Zaleski said. "The decisions come as demands for services from citizens continue to increase."

The county posted a $12.5 million budget surplus this year and is on target for a similar surplus next year, he said.

"When you compare the surplus to $540 million, it is just a drop in the bucket," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "At least, we are using it for one-time expenses. The state is using its surplus for ongoing expenses."

Surpluses usually result from prudent fiscal management and cannot be considered a steady revenue stream, Zaleski said.

"Even if this revenue was ongoing, it would not be enough, not even close to enough, to wipe out the list," Zaleski said. "We should focus on a one-time use of this revenue and attack the list."

The county is facing a lack of funding for more than $250 million in school construction and renovation projects and more than $100 million in road maintenance work, plus at least another $40 million just for roads around Westminster.

A new detention center could cost more than $80 million to build, and the county has yet to purchase land for the prison. Increases in emergency services and police protection could add more than $9 million to the county budget, officials said.

"Remember this is just the big stuff," Zaleski said. "There are many changes we haven't quantified. So much stuff is not even part of this list."

Revenues from property and income taxes are as strong as they have been since the late 1980s, but those increases are not the norm, he stressed. He cautioned that revenues historically change unexpectedly.

"Clearly, we have an unusual opportunity now, but I urge caution in your actions and restraint in the public's expectations," Zaleski said. "We must budget conservatively and wait to get a handle on how much of this revenue is sustainable."

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich criticized several members of the county's legislative delegation for their refusal to support the commissioners' efforts to diversify tax revenues. The delegation rejected last week the commissioners' proposal for a transfer tax, a 1 percent levy on real estate sales.

"Residents elected this board of commissioners to manage growth and make incremental improvements in the quality of life," Minnich said. "We have the responsibility but not the authority to meet the expectations we were elected to fulfill. This is a major disconnect. We are left with a great sense of futility."

Zaleski said he will deliver firm budget recommendations and specifics to the commissioners next month.

In the meantime, Zaleski is talking about the budget to various community groups, trying to build an understanding for what the county is dealing with financially.

"We need to hear what the public wants in light of these limitations," Minnich said. "The average citizen trusts us to work this out some way. The budget is coming and we are facing tough choices. The county is not rolling in money."

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