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Md.'s future by the numbers Statistics: They're not just dry abstrations, but a picture of the choices we've made, where we're going and how we can get there.; 1997

THE BALTIMORE SUN

READY OR NOT, 1997 is upon us. In addition to that first baby of the New Year, be prepared to welcome about 69,100 bundles of joy to Maryland in the next twelve months. But if you are not in the diaper business, I'm afraid the thought of 69,100 births may simply provoke a gentle yawn.

Think again. Births and other demographic numbers have many implications, from hospital rooms to landfill space for all those diapers. It is also useful to consider the numbers in terms of their cumulative or long-range impacts. Back in 1990, births peaked at 80,200, and those kids, along with the crop coming of school age, are going to push public school enrollment up by 15,200 next year. The 1997 increase in enrollment is actually less than the 17,150 that we have averaged for the past six years. And based on the birth data, the long-range view shows some relief from the increased enrollments, but the bottom line is that we continue to face more students each year.

As we approach the New Year, we need to reflect on what we see in the numbers. As a professional planner I am expected to provide not only data, but more importantly some analysis of what the data suggest about the future. How and where we choose to live has thousands of consequences in 1997 and beyond. Each year's set of decisions has broad implications, such as the loss in piggyback income tax revenue when another 10,000 or more residents leave Baltimore City. The more visible loss is the annual 15,000 acres of farmland sprouting wooden stakes and orange flags and the retirement of tractors, plows, farmers, suppliers and processors. By preserving a few trees, we've learned to camouflage the annual loss of equal amounts of forest land -- only the songbirds know. However, in the case of farmland, it is both a loss in economic productivity and a very clear visual change.

Schools, schools, schools

So, back to the school-age population, and now it's time to think cumulatively. Many annual numbers have a manageable dimension to them, but when we add up 5, 10 or 20 years' worth, even those of us who are sedate can begin to raise eyebrows. Since 1990, state-wide public school enrollment has increased by 103,000 -- that is enough students to fill 4,120 classrooms and this year's increase means another 608 classrooms.

If you are in the construction business, hip-hip-hurrah! If you are in state or local government, you are expected to come up with those classrooms, the teachers, the support staff and the money to pay for it all. And for the public sector, the story doesn't stop there. In recent years, most of us have been choosing to live in developments or areas where our kids can no longer walk to school. So each year, we see more of those yellow school buses. With transportation costs often running $500 a year per child, 100,000 more kids means $50 million in added government costs just to get kids to the door of the classroom.

If I were prone to exponential thinking, I would be tempted to further explore the cost of busing. For instance, one might suggest that because most kids no longer walk to school, we are also facing higher costs for extramural activities just to keep kids fit. But enough said about births, kids' schools and the cots of our "country living" lifestyles.

Job growth or the lack thereof

Let's turn now to the graduates, and we should start by giving three cheers to the return to growth in the number of jobs. In fact, it might suffice to say simply that we should see 35,000 to 40,000 additional jobs in 1997. Job growth or the lack there of is the most often reported piece of data -- and with good reason if you like to eat, have a roof over your head or feel safe on the streets. It is worth noting two factors that continue to affect our numbers. One is that we are part of a Mid-Atlantic region where job growth remains below the national average. Secondly, Maryland's job picture is strongly influenced by the federal government. In this case, the numbers should be positive as 3,000 federal civilian jobs are relocated from outside the state to the Patuxent River Naval Station, helping to offset any continued downsizing in other parts of the federal government. Given the generally rural nature of Southern Maryland, this good news comes with a big price tag in terms of needed roads, schools, water and sewer. But the bottom line is moderately improved job prospects in Maryland.

Demographics may be destiny

Now we have graduated, gotten a job and we are ready for another milestone -- housing. With a stronger economy, more people will move to Maryland from the 49 states than will leave Maryland. Further, during the 1990s, international migration has been contributing an average of 12,000 persons per year, and this gain should continue in 1997. The migration numbers add substantially to a net population increase where we should see Maryland cross the 5.1 million mark this year -- an increase of more than 47,000. The additional population generates new households and new households drive housing starts where we should see a modest increase with approximately 27,000 residential buildings being authorized for construction.

As with schools, the numbers related to housing and development should be viewed in cumulative, long range and exponential terms. The placement of 600,000 new housing units over the next 25 years will change the face of Maryland forever. Demographics may be destiny, but destiny still involves hundreds of decisions by you and me.

The future according to the beholder

And in the case of housing, I am going to let the spirit of the New Year overwhelm the trends and suggest that we will start to behave differently. Rather than living where we have to drive considerable distances to get to work and to shop, more more of us are going to choose locations that give us time for things other than driving.

In 1997, estate housing, derisively known as "McMansions" -- large houses on large country lots -- is out. Simple houses, closer to to jobs and other necessities, are in. In fact, people are going to delight in thumbing their noses at planners' projections based on past trends.

The cynic might suggest that my denial of trends is based on greed rather than the euphoria of the New Year. While I confess my lust for the proposed 10 percent tax cut, I acknowledge that the cut requires that we control the costs of government and use our schools, roads, utilities and community assets more efficiently. My intuition tells me that we are tired of drifting into the future, that we want to sail and control our destiny. Dare we check our course next year at this time?

Ronald Kreitner is the director of the Maryland Office of Planning.

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Pub Date: 12/29/96

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