Who's that man sitting in the Arundel Center with the thick white hair and rounded girth? Could it be Santa Claus?
No, it's Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary, although he has been promising so many goodies lately that it might be easy to confuse the two.
The numbers crunchers now preparing Anne Arundel's 1996 capital and operating budgets are looking for a way to pay for all that Mr. Gary has promised: $2 million to help renovate the old Bates High School in Annapolis; $1 million for the Glen Burnie Superblock and another $750,000 for a skating rink there; $2 million for a new animal shelter; support for a $35 million school computer network; a career center for juvenile delinquents; a Glen Burnie sports complex; 20 new police officers and 10 new firefighters. And already the county is committed to several big-ticket items -- a courthouse expansion, a new detention center on Ordnance Road and about $30 million for school construction.
Coming up with the money for all these projects won't be easy. Property assessments are flat, income tax revenues are less than expected, interest rates are rising and the county is struggling to keep the cost of its debt service within 8 percent of the total operating budget.
Normally, the county can count on a $16 million surplus in the operating budget to jump start the next fiscal year, but this year the county revenues are running only $1.3 million ahead of expenses. Thanks to cost-cutting measures implemented by Mr. Gary's predecessor, Robert R. Neall, Anne Arundel County at least is not facing the large deficits that are now burdening some other jurisdictions.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gary's projects won't be built by elves. Already, the county executive is saying he may have to raise the property tax rate for the first time since 1983.
That will be no easy feat in a county that voted strongly to cap tax revenues. More likely, the money for Mr. Gary's new initiatives will be taken from other projects that have been awaiting funding.
Certainly, the new executive has the right to shape his own budget priorities. But he needs to make this clear to county residents: When he promises a new building or another program, it won't magically appear under a Christmas tree without Mr. Gary taking something else back up the chimney with him.