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When a cut is an increase [Editorial]

A quick review of the basics of money management at the county level in Maryland is generally worth pondering at this time of year.

The General Assembly may have set its spending policy for the fiscal year, which begins July 1, but the counties and school systems are just getting into the process of setting spending policy for that same year that begins July 1.

Most government finance people are quick to point out that a budget is an estimate, a working document that needs adjusting through the year. It is a plan based on estimates. Just as a household budget is based on certain assumptions – how much money the family brings in balanced against expenses like mortgage payments, vehicle expenses, insurance, food, utilities, entertainment and so on – a county government budget is based on balancing tax income against expenses ranging from education, police and public safety to parks, recreation and the arts.

Moreover, just as there are unforeseen expenses for a household, like the occasional transmission replacement for a car, there are unforeseen ups and downs for a local government. That's why the government finance people like to stress the notion that a budget is a working document, not a strictly binding one.

Still, just as household budgeting can be reduced to some basic ideas, so can government budgeting. In the case of Harford County, the projection is for no major increases in revenue without increasing taxes. Also the administration of Executive David R. Craig has expressed concern about a possible jobs hit at Aberdeen Proving Ground, so the budget proposal for the year ahead reflects an actual decrease in projected operational spending of $13.4 million. The county expects to spend $627 million on operations this year, down from $640.4 million in the year that ends June 30.

The spending plan doesn't include the staff reductions undertaken by the Craig Administration in past years, neither does it include salary increases for most county personnel. Raises in the public sector have been hard to come by in recent years in Harford County.

This contrasts with the spending plan that has been outlined in recent weeks by Harford County Public Schools, an organization responsible for a budget very roughly the same size as the county's. The school system is seeking an increase in its allocation from the county that is more than double the size of the spending reduction outlined in the county budget proposal. The county has committed to funding a relatively marginal increase in its allocation to the school system. In all, the county's proposed allocation to the school system totals $223.7 million, a slight increase over what was allocated in the current year, but substantially less than the $253.3 million the school system asked for.

Though the school system will be getting an increase in its allocation from the county, the allocation will often be referred to as a school system budget cut. Actually, it is a cut in the budget requested by the school system, but that distinction generally is not made in public forums where school spending is being hotly debated. To use the household analogy, it would be as though a homeowner requested a 10 percent raise at work, was given a 5 percent raise and then complained that his salary had been cut.

The fast and loose definition of what constitutes a cut was not invented by the people in Harford County Public Schools. It is a fairly routine rhetorical shorthand used by school systems – and a fair number of other government entities – across the country.

Characterizing an increase that isn't as big as what had been requested as a cut, however, is a rather disingenuous way of approaching discussions about finance, whether they relate to individual pay, or funding for a government agency.

While Harford County isn't the first place where this odd definition of what constitutes a cut was used, it would be nice if public officials all around would start being a little more forthright when they're referring to cuts and increases and taxes and fees.

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