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Part-Time Budgets in Full-Time County


Had enough of amateur financial management of Carroll County's multi-million budget?

In the past month, Carroll's not-ready-for-prime-time Board of Commissioners made a mockery of methodical and responsible fiscal policy. Only Groucho Marx could have developed a more convoluted and absurd script than the one the commissioners acted out two weeks ago in passing next year's budget. The episode revealed the inherent problems of having a part-time board running a county undergoing rapid change that requires sophisticated management.

Almost from the day they were elected last November, the commissioners were aware that some type of tax increase would be needed.

They tacitly acknowledged the problem when they doubled the county's impact fees on new homes. There were also early signs that that increase would not generate the money to balance this year's budget nor to begin financing the design and planning of eight new schools that will be needed by the year 2002.

To prepare the public for the bad news, the commissioners said last winter, very early in the budget process, they would probably pass an increase in the county's "piggyback" tax. The commissioners didn't want to increase the county's real property tax rate -- currently set at $2.35 per $100 of assessed value.

The county's budget office prepared a balanced 1996 fiscal year budget based on an increase in the piggyback rate from 50 percent to 60 percent of the state income tax. The new schools were included in the county's long-term capital improvements budget.

It was a sensible and responsible plan that covered the county's immediate services and created the financial cushion to pay for future needs. Neither did it jeopardize the county's excellent credit rating.

As soon as the commissioners appeared at public forums, however, the plan began unraveling. Rather than take a leadership role and explain the need for this budget and advocate for its passage, the commissioners allowed uninformed critics to dominate the debate.

The critics focused on the increased piggyback tax. They said it was unnecessary. If the commissioners eliminated waste and reduced the education budget, there would be no need for the increase, they claimed.

Lost in the heated discussion was the actual dollar amounts involved. The average Carroll taxpayer would pay $150 -- or $12.50 a month -- in additional income taxes as a result of the increase, according to budget officials.

The result of this one-sided debate was predictable. Momentum against the tax increase began to build, and the commissioners' resolve began to weaken.

Donald I. Dell, who had tepidly supported the piggyback tax increase, backed away from it.

W. Benjamin Brown, who recognized the need for the increase early on and was unwavering in his support, continued to defend a 60 percent level. As a result, the anti-tax crowd targeted him for blistering criticism.

Richard T. Yates -- Carroll's fiscal Forrest Gump, who seems to think that government can provide services without taxes -- opposed the increase.

As things played out, Mr. Dell decided the county's fiscal policy. Mr. Dell, a farmer who was re-elected after a term on the board, wanted to mollify his vehement anti-tax constituents.

Instead of increasing the rate to the full 60 percent, Mr. Dell proposed raising the piggyback tax to 58 percent. Apparently, Mr. Dell thought the slight reduction would provide him political cover.

When Mr. Dell discovered that the tax increase could not be earmarked specifically for school construction or deficit reduction, he said he would support it only if it was for one year.

Because the county's fiscal calendar begins July 1 and doesn't coincide with the tax year, which begins Jan. 1, the one-year tax would actually provide only six months' worth of revenue and would generate less than half the amount the county needs for the budget.

The immediate impact of the decision was to eviscerate the capital improvements package. Budget Director Steve Powell told the commissioners that four schools would go by the wayside. Hearing that, Mr. Dell and Mr. Brown reconsidered the vote on the tax and decided to have the 58 percent level for six years.

This sorry episode is further evidence that the commissioner form of government is inherently defective when it comes to dealing with complex issues.

As a group, the commissioners don't have any vision for Carroll's future. They don't understand the notion of leaving a legacy for future generations.

Their decisions focus on the here and now. The severe shortage of schools, the overcrowded jail, the lack of an office for the education department and insufficient water supplies for South Carroll are a direct manifestation of the commissioners' lack of collective foresight.

Even when a commissioner does try to manage for the future, his or her plans can be thwarted by the other two. A three-member board may have served Carroll well in the past as a stable, rural community. Now that it is a dynamic suburban bedroom community, this form of government is antiquated.

The time has come to change it.

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

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