As the financial picture in the State House continues to deteriorate, it becomes increasingly obvious that the burden of making ends meet rests with local government. Even now, the Schaefer administration is contemplating slashing $100 million in state tax grants and education and police aid. Part of this might be averted by a major tax increase, but this necessary fiscal antidote is far from assured. "We need the county executives and we need the guy on the street who realizes his services are going to be cut," said Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
At least one county leader has seen the handwriting on the wall. Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall ordered his department heads to slash spending by an average of 1.6 percent to make up for the roughly $10 million the county stands to lose in state aid. "If we begin planning now, we will be well positioned to face our share of any bad news that comes from the State House," said Mr. Neall. He is not relying solely on belt-tightening to avert a financial crisis, either. Mr. Neall appointed a diverse coalition of civic, professional and political leaders to find ways to reduce county government's dependence on property tax dollars and is mounting an effort to identify those services most important to taxpayers.
Tough times demand this kind of initiative. So far, the state has balanced its books by commandeering every last cent from reserve funds and imposing spending cuts on higher education and other agencies. In the absence of a major tax hike, though, local grants will almost certainly be tapped next to close a current state gap of $365 million. County executives who rely on state legislators' ability -- and willingness -- to push through a substantive tax package may be sorely disappointed in the wake of smoldering anti-tax sentiment.
Beyond possible cuts in state aid, county executives still face a rocky road. Locally generated revenue remains stagnant but demands for more school funds and other services for the young, the elderly and the poor are growing louder. Local executives should start now to seek creative ways to deliver government services at a lower cost. Mr. Neall has the right idea. Other county leaders would be smart to follow.