Sane Budgeting in Carroll


It seems inevitable that one day, increasingly suburban Carroll County will adopt a charter form of government, similar to what Baltimore's other suburban jurisdictions have used for years. When it does, though, Carroll will miss the sane process under which it makes up its budget.

The budget season in Carroll lacks political theater: no executive leaves in a little fat so the council can claim a budget pelt of its own; no councilman makes a play for the crowd. Because the county is run by three commissioners, who act as both administrative and legislative branches, there is no executive budget address to kick-off the budget season. Rather, the commissioners hold a series of hearings, open to the public, scrutinizing individual departmental items before they hold a general public hearing. The fact that this trio of commissioners -- Donald I. Dell, Elmer Lippy and Julia I. Gouge -- seems to meld better than some previous threesomes helps immensely.

Disagreements crop up -- as they should -- but they seem more pragmatic than political. In fact, the commissioners split 2-1 Tuesday in approving their $118 million budget proposal because Mrs. Gouge opposed the deletion of a reserve fund. The commissioners in the end relented to school board wishes to rescind a couple of furlough days for teachers because state cuts weren't as severe as anticipated, but they refused to approve pay raises.

The amount of government funds spent on education overall, a perennial tug-of-war in most of Maryland's larger jurisdictions, also seems tamer in Carroll, which spent 55 percent of its budget on education in fiscal year 1990, the highest share for school spending in the metro region. (By comparison, Baltimore City spent 25 percent in FY '90; Baltimore County, 39 percent, and education-minded Howard County, 46 percent.) With fewer needs competing for the tax dollar, the county is able to spend a greater share on schools.

And since Carroll provides far fewer services than its more urbanized counterparts in the region, it has one of the state's leaner municipal payrolls, ranking 20th of 24 jurisdictions, according to the Maryland Association of Counties. Carroll does not plan to raise its piggyback income tax or its property tax rate of $2.35, the metro region's lowest, although residents pay an additional property tax if they live in an incorporated town.

Baltimore's neighbors may snicker at Carroll's "whip and buggy" government, but as the region's leaders crunch fiscal numbers this spring, they could learn a lesson from a body politic that doesn't bring a soapbox to build a budget.

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