Budget problems projected

Falling revenues, water crisis, rising construction costs could affect county programs

January 28, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Though a hot real estate market created a budget surplus in previous years, softening revenues, rising construction costs and the expense of securing water resources could strain the Carroll County budget next year, county budget director Ted Zaleski said.

Zaleski warned that capital projects, even those on the county's six-year plan, might be slashed. He and analysts are preparing to unveil a budget for fiscal year 2008 in March.

Construction projects that are funded create millions of dollars in operating costs, consuming additional funds, Zaleski added.

"There are going to be some hard choices made," the budget director told the county commissioners. "We can't do everything. What are the things you think you're willing to give up? What are you not?"

Revenue from income taxes, recordation taxes on deed transfers and building permits has dropped, leaving the county with $3 million less than what was anticipated for this year, Zaleski said.

He recommended holding the line on property taxes.

"Property taxes are minor revenue to the state, but it's half your revenue," Zaleski told the commissioners.

School construction consumes the greatest chunk of Carroll's annual budget. Desired projects adding up to a half-billion dollars have been identified, Zaleski said.

Construction on the Ebb Valley Elementary School and land acquisition for a new high school, both in northeast Carroll, are under way.

A new county middle school, an elementary school in South Carroll and a fine arts/auditorium addition at South Carroll High School are on the table.

Modernizing existing schools also generates extensive costs. Schools from the 1950s and 1960s, and Charles Carroll Elementary, built in 1929, are in need of major repairs, Zaleski said.

Other expensive county projects include a drug treatment center in Sykesville, a new Finksburg library and a fourth classroom addition at Carroll Community College.

To solve Carroll's water crisis, the county plans to build two reservoirs: one at Gillis Falls and the other at Union Mills. These would create huge costs, Zaleski said.

Stricter state requirements concerning the amount of water that can be withdrawn from wells and also storm-water and wastewater management will require expensive infrastructure upgrades, Zaleski added.

In an increasingly digital world, Carroll will face the problem of whether to upgrade or replace its 800-megahertz analog system at the county's 911 emergency dispatch center.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich stressed the need to talk with Public Safety Administrator Scott Campbell and emergency services employees about the matter.

With projected state budget shortfalls of at least $1 billion looming, grants to county schools, the Health Department, the public library and social services could be cut, leaving the county to pick up the tab.

Programs such as a new Local Management Board resource center and hot line, which would assist parents with emotionally disturbed or developmentally disabled children, depend on state grants.

But when Jolene Sullivan, county director of citizen services, recently briefed the commissioners on the $125,000 in state funds secured for the project, Minnich offered an admonition.

"For programs like this, I think some of this money from the state is going to dry up in a couple years," Minnich warned.

"That's unfortunate," Sullivan replied, saying that she hoped private foundations could then pick up the slack.

Zaleski stressed that county agencies should make their case for funding requests now. He said waiting to plead for more funds once the preliminary budget is unveiled is too late.

In his fall campaign, new Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer pushed to reduce the cap on property assessments to 5 percent. But after the budget update, Zimmer said he might re-evaluate his position.

"Based on the new information I'm obtaining, I might have to make an adjustment on that and say let's leave it where it is," Zimmer said.

The fiscal 2008 budget will be officially proposed in April and should be adopted by the commissioners in May before going into effect July 1.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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