County budget said to be in best shape in years

Revenue has increased about 20% since last fiscal year, Carroll official says

March 20, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A nearly 20 percent increase in revenue gives Carroll County its brightest budget picture in almost 20 years.

The budget for fiscal 2006 shows a growth of $51.9 million since last year and could go higher before the fiscal year ends June 30.

The county is posting strong simultaneous growth in revenues from property and income taxes, recordation fees and state highway funds. Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget, credits rapidly rising home prices, the low interest rates that have spurred home refinancings and the state's renewed commitment to roads projects.

"We have not seen a change like this since 1988," Zaleski said. "All of our largest revenue sources are growing strong, and all at the same time."

Since 1998, the average cost of a house in the county has doubled to more than $300,000, with many new homes well in excess of the average, Zaleski said.

After posting a surplus for three consecutive years, and with year-end revenues consistently strong since 2004, Zaleski said the county is undergoing a major shift.

"We could see the signs emerging, but this did not happen overnight," Zaleski said. "It is directly related to the housing market, both because of costs and reassessments and the higher incomes that come along with this."

In closed meetings with the commissioners this month, Zaleski tempered the good news with a note of restraint. The trend might not continue, he said. Recordation fees from home sales and refinancing of mortgages are dropping off, although the value of the transactions is increasing.

"This picture will change," he said. "It won't stay this way."

Historically, the economy follows a pattern of growth and turnarounds, he said.

"We are fortunate to have this money, but the bottom can fall out at any time," Commissioner Perry L. Jones said. "We have to use this money for capital projects. We would have to spend three times this amount just to catch up with projects that we have put off for a long time. It is one-time money."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge agreed. "I have been around long enough to see the bubble burst," she said.

Gouge, who is serving her fourth term, recalled many years when the financial outlook was much bleaker.

"When there is no money, the decisions are not so difficult," she said. "The question here is how to spend this one-time money wisely and get the best use out of it. This is wonderful news that will take care of a lot of things."

The county should not consider the additional $51 million for operating expenses because no one is certain how much of the money can be relied on in future years, Gouge said.

Zaleski has recommended using the surplus to tackle a long list of capital projects, particularly roads and school construction. Carroll has more than $90 million in overdue roads projects and faces about $250 million in school renovation and construction work.

"We have an unprecedented opportunity in our hands to catch up on things we have needed to do," Zaleski said. "This is an opportunity to make choices."

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said: "It has always been our intention to catch up and keep up. This unexpected overage is good news in those terms. It affirms some actions we took two years ago to increase the recordation fees and income tax to begin to diversify income and lay off the property tax."

Zaleski said he has recommended expenditures that "are consistent with the commissioners' goals and fundable within projected revenues."

The commissioners are meeting with departments to consider appeals for expenditures that did not make the final budget list. By the third week of next month, the proposed budget will be available for public review and comment.

A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. May 7 in the Scott Center of Carroll Community College. The board typically adopts the budget, now estimated at $286 million, in late May.

The recommended budget is available online at http://ccgov.carr.org/budget/index.html.

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