Public service


EVERY SPRING, local governments in the Baltimore suburbs hold budget hearings so elected officials hear what ordinary citizens want in the way of public services. This is, alas, an imperfect science.

Year after year, the same types show up in the school auditoriums and County Council chambers. Not the multitudes who take all manner of public services for granted, but single-minded advocates for specific interests. Recreation council leaders. Occasionally, environmentalists. Almost always, teachers and members of other public employee unions and parents of schoolchildren.

They make the noise. They can skew our sense of where and to what extent public resources ought to be spent.

This month, judging from the turnout at hearings and subsequent headlines, schools have dominated the agendas. The only counties where budget hearings have attracted crowds have been Howard and Anne Arundel, where executives Charles I. Ecker and John G. Gary, respectively, have not matched school systems' budget requests.

An emotional appeal

It goes without saying that education is and should be a priority. But other budget issues are of great concern, too. They are not as emotionally appealing as education, which makes them easy to minimize and forget.

In Anne Arundel, for instance, the teachers union presumes to speak on behalf of 73,000 children even though it, like all unions, exists for the economic enhancement of its members. Its real complaint with Mr. Gary's budget (which substantially increases school funding) is that it doesn't include the pay raise its 'N members wanted. The union's rhetoric, however, revolves around alleged unfairness to children. It notes that the portion of the county operating budget spent on schools has declined from 47 to 43 percent since 1994. Meanwhile, the union says, the rest of the government "gets bigger and bigger."

The implication is that funds are being shifted from an essential service to useless bureaucracies and fluff. That simply is not so.

In all the suburban Baltimore jurisdictions, education claims a slightly smaller percentage of county budgets than it did a few years ago. But budgets have grown, so the amount of money schools receive is increasing. Anne Arundel schools were not better off when they got 47 percent of a $600 million budget ($282 million), instead of 43 percent of $700 million ($301 million).

At the same time, urbanization and other demographic changes have compelled governments to grow in other vital areas -- areas easily overlooked at budget time because they do not, as Mr. Ecker notes, "have built-in lobbies the way schools do."

New development means new roads. Howard County, for instance, has added 160 miles of roads since 1991, a 22-percent increase, adding costs to its highway maintenance budget.

Generally, the population of senior citizens is growing faster than the school-age population. Hence, a growing demand for senior centers and in-home care.

Suburbanites want more ball fields and other recreational facilities. It costs millions to buy land and develop it. Again, maintenance costs go up.

Most significantly, public safety needs have skyrocketed. The thousands flocking to the counties expect a crime-free existence even though population growth inevitably brings some increase in crime. As a result, local governments have had to beef up police and other public safety functions drastically.

Baltimore County has added 211 police officers since Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger took office in 1994, a 14 percent increase. Howard has added 41 officers since 1991 and hired 70 firefighters.

In Anne Arundel, the government expansion so derided by the teachers union consists mainly of public safety expenses. Since 1994, the county has hired 99 police officers, 140 detention center officers, 28 sheriff's deputies, 10 firefighters and an assortment of court employees.

A second detention center, needed to house the miscreants that suburbanites want off their streets, costs Anne Arundel $7 million more a year to operate than the old one.

No, no one has turned out this year to call for more jail space or better roads. We expect these things to be taken care of, whether we attend a public hearing or not, and would quickly turn against elected officials who ignore our tacit wishes.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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