The austerity option

Our view: County executive makes right call with lean budget

April 16, 2008

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. probably shouldn't expect a lot of thank-you notes from his county employees this year. The $2.58 billion budget he unveiled yesterday doesn't give most of them cost-of-living raises. Teachers have expressed their displeasure with picketing and a work-to-rule protest.

But the proposed budget does hold the line on spending and taxes - keeping property tax and personal income tax rates exactly where they've been for a decade and a half. That's not an unreasonable position, considering the county lost $40 million in anticipated funding from the state because of recent cutbacks and the financial squeeze put on households by the ongoing economic downturn.

Education spending should remain the county's highest priority. But just as private employers must keep a lid on salaries when times are tough, government employees can't expect raises-as-usual when record numbers of people are caught in a credit crunch.

Mr. Smith could have proposed raising taxes. That's what Gov. Martin O'Malley chose to do last year to address the state's structural deficit. But the county's financial situation is simply not as dire.

Providing employees a 4 percent COLA next year would have cost county taxpayers about $56 million. That likely would require a 9-cent increase in the county's property tax rate - an ill-timed burden we strongly suspect a majority of county residents would oppose.

In his address to the council, Mr. Smith rightly notes that Baltimore County has a high quality of life. Prudent fiscal management on the part of county government is part of that, but so is providing high-quality services.

Asking teachers and other county employees to tighten their belts for one year is the right call, but like a homeowner who defers maintenance, it's a strategy that can't continue forever.

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