Economic development has moved to the top of Carroll County's agenda, and government officials are now searching for ways to remove impediments hindering business development.
County and town officials spent an entire day recently talking among themselves at Carroll Community College about ways to increase Carroll County's industrial and commercial base.
At a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce's leadership development program, the participants focused most of their discussion with a panel of editorial writers and broadcast station managers on ways to improve the county's business environment.
Now that people are finally talking about the need for business development, most county business people think that there is a single impediment to business development: state government.
State government permits -- including environmental studies, air and water discharge permits -- certainly slow development to some degree, but they are not the reason for a lack of business growth in this county.
States with many fewer regulations than Maryland are struggling to attract business. Montana, for instance, which probably has some of the most permissive business regulations in the 50 states, is losing its youth because there aren't enough jobs in the state and it is having trouble enticing new businesses.
The question is not whether regulations exist, but whether they are efficiently and consistently enforced.
Nothing makes business people happier than an expeditious and clear approval process that allows a project to move forward.
A regulatory process that turns back on itself, gets stalled over inconsequential items or has two or three agencies duplicating approvals is one that business people learn to detest.
Maryland's approval process could be reformed. And when a big project comes into the state, economic development officials "fast track" the reviews. The state government should strive to have all development approvals handled in that fashion.
Too often, however, businesses confuse expeditious review with automatic approval.
There aren't too many large projects that can make it through the approval unchanged, particularly when citizens have input. Because we live in a democratic country, most businesses have to learn to deal with public hearings and meetings. These types of meetings can slow the approval process, but they also ensure that the project conforms to the community and its standards.
On the county level, the commissioners, much to their credit, have focused a lot more attention on business development and have refined the county's approval process so projects move through expeditiously.
The commissioners, however, wrongly believe that waiving the fees will encourage business to move into the county. Permit fees, most of which amount to petty cash for large industrial companies, are not impeding development in this county. In fact, in Carroll, those fees may be responsible for ensuring the prompt development reviews.
Carroll's review process is self-financing. The fees collected from developers and businesses more than pay for the staff needed for the review process.
This is as it should be: When it came time to cut money for the Bureau of Permits and Inspections, the argument was made that it was one of the few agencies that actually made money for the county.
If the commissioners waive all fees, as they are proposing, general taxpayer revenues will have to cover the costs of operating the bureau.
During times of austerity, there will be pressure to reduce the money for the development review and permit process. It will have to compete for money with other agencies, such as the school system, the Bureau of Aging and police.
The citizens won't be upset if development and review receives the brunt of the budgetary ax because they don't derive any direct benefits from that agency. However, any deterioration of the development review process will affect the businesses seeking to build and expand in this county.
If the commissioners really want to encourage development, they should make sure the county has a good transportation system, a good education system, a rational master plan and a predictable development review process.
Carroll's property tax rate of $2.53 per $100 of assessed valuation is the lowest in the Baltimore metropolitan area, so the county remains very competitive in terms of taxes.
Rather than pointing the finger at state regulations, people interested in Carroll's business development ought to be emphasizing the county's positive business climate and living conditions.
That is the best way to attract business.
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.