Mike Preston's report card in Week 3
The Baltimore Sun

Zaleski: Tough choices ahead to balance county budget

While Carroll County's unemployment rate remains low and there are signs of modest economic recovery, the county's budget office said this week it could not present the Board of County Commissioners with a balanced operating budget for fiscal year 2013 without hard decisions by the commissioners.

County Management and Budget Director Ted Zaleski told the commissioners March 21 that policy decisions will need to be made to balance this coming year's budget plan, as well as the longer-range FY 2013-18 plan.

Zaleski said the county has pretty much exhausted "easy" decisions and minor adjustments it can make within the budget to offset costs and declining revenues, and that this board of commissioners is facing some tough calls ahead.

"The choices we have ... are becoming fewer," Zaleski said. "We can't really make it without policy decisions."

"I'm not giving you something that is balanced right now," he said. "That's not for a lack of desire or running out of time, but just the situation we're facing."

Zaleski's presentation kicked off the county's budget review process, which will involve meetings with departments and numerous work sessions in the coming weeks. The board is expected to vote on a budget package by the end of May.

Zaleski said the county is anticipating that its revenue stream will be $500,000 less than projected for the current year. He said additional factors — such as the state passing along teacher pension costs to the county — will add more budget pressure ahead.

He said things could get worse if property and income tax collections fall farther, but things could also improve if home values or home starts increase, if interest rates go back to more "typical" standards, or if personal incomes improve.

He said the county has a 5.6 percent unemployment rate — a favorable number compared to a statewide rate of 6.5 percent.

Zaleski said property and incomes taxes now account for about 90 percent of the county's revenues to the operating budget.

The board has scheduled several departmental meetings and work sessions in March and April to consider options for the budget. The commissioners said a proposed budget will then be presented in a news conference and made available for public comment.

The Department of Management and Budget will hold a series of community meetings to review the plan, and there will be a public hearing, currently scheduled for May 14 at 7 p.m. at Carroll Community College. The commissioners are expected to adopt the final budget May 29.

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