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Austere. Harsh. Bare-bones. Lean. Meager. Tight.

Just about everysynonym you could find has been used the past several months when county officials have discussed their budget woes.

It's been a difficult process. Just as officials plugged the deficit hole, another would open.

I can only imagine how many pencils,ledger sheets and calculator batteries they went through. They had ballooning deficits from fiscal 1991; more red ink from fiscal 1992.

The mess began almost from the day the three County Commissioners took office in December. The county's agency heads sought $140 millionfor fiscal 1992, which begins July 1. That represented an increase of nearly 19 percent -- and $24 million more than the county expected (at the time) in income.

While the county was used to multimillion-dollar budget surpluses, this year they had to grapple with little growth, an increasing demand for services and declining -- by several million dollars -- revenue.

Original cost-cutting measures -- including a hiring freeze, energy conservation, a traveling ban -- soon gave way to wholesale cuts in agency budgets.

Unlike George Bush's "Read my lips: No new taxes" promise, the Carroll Commissioners' pledge was actually kept.

And through it all, while cultural programs -- such as the Arts Council -- found themselves with less money, important social programs were spared and layoffs avoided.

Even the Board of Education was cooperative. While past years have drawn complaints from school officials and parents about budget cuts, this year was a pleasant surprise: Even a last-minute $850,000 reduction this year and next was accepted.

"We're glad to get the cooperation," saidCommissioner President Donald I. Dell.

Indeed, the final $115 million county budget for fiscal 1992 has 2.2 percent less money than the current year. And the capital budget suffered a 40 percent drop, to$30.5 million, something that could haunt us in the future.

"We'll come out of it leaner and tougher," said Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy Jr.

"It just means everyone will have to do a little more to make it work," said Commissioner Julia W. Gouge.

But the budget does retain the $2.35 tax rate, meaning taxes on the average $134,000 homecontinue at $1,260. Most homeowners, however, still will see higher tax bills because of ever-rising state assessments.

Those same homeowners in Sykesville will see their taxes rise about $26, because town officials are increasing the rate a nickel, to 73 cents. In Union Bridge and Westminster, officials lowered the rates 4 and 8 cents, saving homeowners $21 and $43, respectively. The other five towns' rates remain the same.

As a Westminster resident, I'll be interested in how the changes affect my tax bill. But it's bound to rise, for, asBen Franklin said,

Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

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