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Our View: County’s unexpected money helps, but ‘cliff’ looms | COMMENTARY

Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners went into a proposed budget work session Thursday looking at giving key agencies extra funding they requested, largely to increase employee compensation. Two options were discussed early — raising taxes to accomplish the goal or holding fast to the current budget plan, which already includes increases to the school system and Sheriff’s Office, just not nearly what those agencies are hoping for.

“Are we comfortable with those choices?” Commissioner President Ed Rothstein asked.

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The commissioners quickly decided they weren’t and began looking at a third option: using the unexpected excess money the county has from higher than expected fiscal year 2021 revenue after a flat FY21 budget. A “chunk of change,” as Rothstein called it.

“This is a very unusual situation,” County Budget Director Ted Zaleski said.

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“Let’s take advantage of it,” Commissioner Stephen Wantz replied.

Wantz led much of the discussion championing the use of the one-time money, suggesting they take a healthy portion of it and “throw it across the bottom lines in an attempt to get back to where we need to be.”

Wantz got feedback and occasional pushback from Zaleski, who reminded the commissioners using one-time money in such a manner will help in the short term but doesn’t address ongoing issues that began with the great recession. “If we balance the plan with one-time money, all we’re doing is making it pretty,” he said. “We’re not making the problem go away.”

Some $56 million is unassigned. Tentatively, $8 million is accounted for, largely to be used for infrastructure, and the commissioners are considering putting another $21 million or so into a fund where it can draw interest and be accessed in future years.

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The plan they went into Thursday with had the county in reasonable shape for the next few years. But as expenditures begin to outpace expected revenue in future years, the bottom line turns negative and the county would “fall off a cliff” as more than one commissioner put it, in FY27 and beyond.

They then plugged all the money requested by the agencies into a spreadsheet — and the county plunged into a $98.6 million hole over the next six years. The first three years weren’t terribly negative and could be mitigated back to a balanced budget with about $24 million of the one-time money. But, to Zaleski’s point, what to do about the expected shortfall of some $18 million in FY 25, more than $24 million in FY26 and nearly $30 million in FY 27?

Obviously, all the agencies won’t get everything they’re looking for. Wantz used the phrase “all get some” and suggested cutting in half both the Sheriff’s Office and Board of Education asks. Theoretically, cuts like those and using unassigned money could fully fund the next four years.

“What I’m arguing against is using the money to ... allow ourselves to ignore that we have negative balances,” Zaleski said. “If they’re negative, leave them negative. Let us look at them and see what we’re up against.”

What the county is up against is trying to rectify continually committing more and more to services, albeit for the right reasons. Of course Carroll wants to attract and keep good workers, from teachers to deputies to firefighters for the countywide service, while surrounding counties can offer higher salaries.

But even with the present “chunk of change,” and even by slashing what each agency is looking for, the cliff looms. Not this year. Not next. But it’s out there. And, at that point, another board will be back in the same spot, forced to choose between raising taxes and refusing to budge on a budget. Without the luxury of an extra $56 million in the coffers.

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