We are struck by the absence of emotion and lack of ready solutions from local budget officers in the wake of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's weekend announcement that the state budget deficit is spreading toward a half-billion dollars.
Some local officials don't believe the shortfall will be so large. Others say they can wait for the state to specify the cuts, possibly in the next couple of weeks. The main reasons, however, for the muted echo of resignation in City Hall and county chambers seem two-fold: Local bean counters saw this coming in the spring when the state optimistically estimated 6 percent revenue growth while everyone else estimated 1 or 2 percent. And, after two years of aid reductions, solutions are getting harder to find.
Said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, after attending workshops on cost-containment at his group's annual convention in Ocean City last weekend: "You sit there and listen for 'the secret' and it just ain't there." Local governments are having to rely on volunteers to handle tasks that were recently the domain of paid staff, such as seniors centers and park maintenance. The public will also feel the effects through such things as cuts in library hours, new user fees and community college tuition increases.
For their part, local officials hope for two things: That the state announces the extent of the local cuts as early as possible and at once, rather than last year's water torture of cuts-cuts-cuts. Second, the local governments would rather avoid playing the blame game with Annapolis. Following the governor's deficit announcement at the MACO meeting, the organization was again defending its members against the state's contention that the locals shouldn't have raised employee salaries in the past year. What this crisis calls for is a long-term solution involving state and local officials, not an argument over which government can lay claim to being the toughest employer in the land.