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Crime's Serious, But What About Jobs?


Change is the buzzword for this election season, as it was the last election four years ago and the one four years before that.

I am willing to bet that since the first elections were held in Carroll County, politicians have been promising to change the status quo. They have waxed eloquently about the challenges facing the county.

Good politicians seem to have a sixth sense that detects public unhappiness. The successful ones play upon those feelings and promise that they will change conditions for the better.

At the moment, crime appears to be the preoccupation of many candidates. In all likelihood, they are reflecting the public's anxiety.

While crime has increased in Carroll, it has not engulfed the county. According to the latest police statistics released after the first quarter of this year, the crimes committed against people actually decreased but crimes against property had increased.

The number of murders, rapes and breaking and enterings dropped in Carroll compared with the same quarter in 1993.

Thefts -- which range from bicycles to valuable jewelry and electronic equipment -- increased 15 percent to 544 incidents from 474 during the first quarter. Auto thefts also increased by a third to 38 reported cases, compared to 28 in the first quarter of 1993.

As crime statistics are reported, the county experienced a 1 percent decline.

But that is not the message politicians are conveying this season. They paint a picture of "good" people living in fear because they are besieged by criminals.

Crime is not something to be dismissed. It has such a corrosive effect on the quality of life in a community. But crime has to be kept in perspective. When people become so preoccupied with this issue to the exclusion of other pressing ones, we run the danger of missing opportunities to effect real change.

At present, economic development is probably Carroll County's most pressing issue. The failure to address this problem will have repercussions on a variety of different aspects of life.

Job creation in this county is barely detectable. Few new businesses are opening; many of the established businesses seem to be shrinking. As a result, half of the county's working population has to commute to somewhere else to earn a living.

People who drive to work and get stuck in traffic jams create more pressure to build roads. If there were more jobs in the county, the desire to pave over large swathes of farmland and forest would subside.

The lack of economic development also has a direct impact on the pocketbook of every residential taxpayer.

A study several years ago demonstrated that for every dollar of residential tax collected, residential taxpayers consumed $1.22 in county services. In other words, residential property owners don't pay their way.

In contrast, industrial, commercial and business real property owners consumed about 85 cents' worth of services for every dollar of property tax they paid. In other words, this set of property owners subsidizes the residential property owners.

Increasing residential development -- as is happening in Carroll -- without an increase in industrial, business and commercial development, results in an even more skewed real estate tax base.

Unless county officials unleash a concerted effort to attract business to this county, residential taxpayers will face large increases in their future tax bills if they want to maintain the same level of county services.

The alternative is to reduce services -- which means cutting back on education (which consumes 53 percent of the budget), libraries, law enforcement and roads.

Without economic development, Carroll eventually declines as a community. The time that adults spend on the road commuting translates to less time spent with families. Commuting also reduces the amount of time available for church, civic and community activities.

This type of impoverishment can be as devastating as not having an income. Children are neglected because the parents are frazzled from work and commuting. Institutions that can support families -- such as churches -- suffer because people don't have the time or energy to participate. Unsupervised children may create mischief, use alcohol and drugs and even commit criminal acts.

We come back to crime. Doing away with probation, ending plea bargaining or compelling criminals to serve their full sentences is not an effective way to attack the crime that besets this county.

Implementing those measures is like pulling off the top of a dandelion weed. It looks like something is done, but unless the deep root is removed, that dandelion is going to come back.

Politicians who are really interested in stemming the crime that now occurs in the county and preventing further increases in criminal behavior ought to be advocating more economic development.

A professionally run economic development effort would generate real and positive change here. A politician who runs on that platform and helps put together a program during his or her term in office probably won't have much trouble getting re-elected.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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