As baseball players are signing contracts for $300 to nearly $420 million to play a game, Carroll County is looking for ways to afford $418 million to run a county next year.
Run a county, as in maintain and staff a school system for thousands of students; keep roads passable summer and winter; assure the peace and safety of the public by having emergency response capabilities to meet the needs of a commuter population combined with an aging citizenry, invest in the infrastructure required to recruit and serve the needs of modern industry, fund a court system — the shopping list grows every passing year.
But the income is not keeping up. Costs go up for supplies and salaries have to be increased or you lose good people to nearby competitors for their talents.
Commissioner Stephen Wantz lamented that he had never seen a challenge like finalizing the budget and maintaining a balance for the next five years.
All kinds of woes about not having enough money are heard every year at budget time; what gets forgotten is one of the prime reasons for funding shortfalls year after year.
It isn’t that there isn’t enough money; it’s a lack of will and — frankly — courage to set priorities that include raising the cash gradually and incrementally so you’re not always trying to come from behind to meet the legitimate needs of the public.
To analyze how the same conversation takes place every year at budget time, all you have to do is remember the glee with which commissioners announced they were cutting taxes a few years ago.
One of the things that gets overlooked is maintenance of effort, a term that refers to a state law requiring so much investment is guaranteed to stabilize funding for key expenditures, particularly in education.
Carroll County has borrowed money to run the government, just like citizens borrow to run a household. Wise borrowing delivers top value for money spent. The county has done a good job of refinancing to achieve the best interest rates, and a sure-footed reputation ensures good credit scores, but the loans have to be repaid.
In general, the county’s leadership has been frugal and reasonable in terms of incurring debt and obligations. But there have been times over the years when one administration or another had the opportunity to choose between moving ahead incrementally by spending revenues collected to catch up and keep up or cutting taxes to take a victory lap on election day.
Someone has to pay the bills. So plan ahead.
Industrial growth helps take the pressure off homeowners’ tax load, but only if the industry isn’t given so many incentives that the benefits to the county are deferred to the point of borrowing more now to pay for the impact on schools, roads, law enforcement and water and sewerage development.
Planning for growth means being ahead of the consequences of 350 new residential units, not closing and even selling schools because of what is likely a temporary downturn in populations. It means redistricting, as much as parents hate it, which means having courage in equal measure to political skills.
Growth is always a goal for conservative politicians. They are less enthusiastic about paying for it. Government services are championed by progressives; they are less cheerful about priorities being balanced with pragmatic approaches to industrial issues.
The key to success is to value needs being met over tax cuts on the one hand, and to insist on restraint when reaching beyond needs to attempt providing all the wants sought by a growing and increasingly diverse population.
And again: Someone has to pay the bills.