The most pressing item on the agenda of local subdivisions these days -- after making it through this year's budget cycle -- is balancing the lopsided equation of declining tax revenues and costly public services. Across the region, taxpayers have made clear their aversion to new tax levies even as they demand more and better government freebies. It is a bill that no local jurisdiction can afford to pay any longer.
The seemingly endless prosperity that flowed from suburban housing development and the robust economy of the '80s has not only come to an abrupt end, it doesn't seem likely to re-appear any time soon. That means the elaborate pyramid of county services built up during the decade will have to be pared to bare essentials.
Local county executives are reacting with varying degrees of realism. One response worth noting is an array of changes now being contemplated by Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall.
In an exercise he calls running the budget through a "tea strainer," Neall is considering user fees, consolidating agencies, offering county employees early retirement and privatization. A county property tax commission is studying new local levies on cars, sales, cigarettes. Anne Arundel Community College and the county Board of Education are looking at putting out joint contracts for data processing, health insurance and maintenance operations. Anne Arundel department heads have been told to come up with a minimum of two services in their agencies that could be done cheaper and better by a private firm.
These alternatives are neither new nor stunningly innovative. But Neall's speedy and serious consideration of these options puts him way ahead of his counterparts -- most of whom are still trying to wade through this year's budget morass.
Such substantive changes are being met with much organized opposition and little open-mindedness among the affect interest groups. Already, county labor unions are fighting privatization on the grounds that government workers are typically better trained, more loyal and always on call. (They do not mention it would also thin their membership ranks.) Others fear that tacking user fees onto once-free government services will exclude the poor. These are legitimate concerns.
What's important is that Neall -- and his counterparts in the region -- recognize the necessity to re-tool government to the economic realities and voter priorities of the 1990s. This will be as wrenching as the fiscal agony that has gripped the region for the past 18 months, but it is a catharsis that will necessarily precede the region's return to economic stability and well-being.