Surviving in Carroll on just $90 a day Per diem: How the county commissioners might scrape by.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Spending money is difficult, time-consuming work that demands the skill of only the most dedicated public officials. It is not a job for amateurs.

In Carroll County recently, county commissioners voted to raise their daily work allowance by 650 percent to $90 a day -- on top of their $32,500 annual salary. They had been getting by on $12 a day, but this was a "pittance," said commissioner Donald I. Dell, who led the charge. The allowance increase was first met with public silence, since the official action was taken in private.

But once "650 percent" and "$90 a day" became visions in the public eye, Carroll County commissioners blinked. The board reversed itself last week and voted -- in public this time -- to do the second best thing a government body can do: order a study. There will be no raising anything now until they figure out exactly what it costs them to do their job.

Even without the benefit of such a cost analysis, though, The Sun can report that trying to spend $90 a day in Carroll County can be a challenging yet rewarding exercise. It's a big, wonderful county out here just waiting to be pampered and paid.

Spending $90 here proved to be a full-time job, one requiring total dedication. There's no room or time for any distractions -- such as holding public meetings, making public policy or having breakfast at Baugher's in Westminster.

Well, there is time for breakfast at Baugher's, but it costs only $5. This leaves the reporter the whole rest of the day to spend $85. Clearly a more fiscally sound strategy is required. As The Sun would discover, it's prudent to spend roughly $30 in the morning, $30 by mid-afternoon and another $30 by the end of the business day.

A challenge to be sure, but the rewards, as readers will see, far outweigh any public criticism.

Pushing our odometer by 147 miles, The Sun loped through Carroll County and its spidery highways that fan out from Westminster -- the county seat and one swell place to start spending a daily allowance. By day's end, our spending spree had netted all the major food groups: food, reading, recreation, cultural artifacts, music, health, personal vices, bovine medications and, of course, discount lingerie. An accounting follows:

WESTMINSTER -- With the exception of walking up to a Grand Canyon edge, there is no greater rush than driving up to Carroll County with $90 in pocket. Filing into the county via Route 140 from Baltimore County, spending possibilities are immediate. The pet store Green Iguana in Finksburg offers an adult Savannah monitor ("fairly tame") for $129. The great lizard is so very tempting but beyond our budget. Plus, the implied rule of the $90-a-day allowance is "don't spend it all in one place."

We duck into the Farm & Country store in Westminster looking for -- what else? -- udder balm. Say you have a cow and it gets

cold one night. Udder balm provides quality frost protection and is well worth the cost ($5.24).

Buying udder balm somehow leads to finding a good smoke. We know that in the Big City, a Macanudo Portofino cigar costs about $6. But at Westminster Cigar Co., one svelt Portofino costs just $4.80.

On this knockout of a fall Thursday, a stroll down East Main Street leads to The Ladies' Exchange, where a husband can find that something special for his wife for Christmas. Something in black, perhaps. Like this negligee by Escapades ($8.40).

Having dropped $18.44 in Westminster, we strike out for the great Northwest of Carroll County.

TANEYTOWN

TANEYTOWN -- Again, temptations on every corner. The deer mounts in the window of Greg Jacoby's Taxidermy call to us. But we're just dreaming -- not even a Carroll County commissioner has that kind of daily allowance.

"How much is that Uncle Remus in the window?" we asked at King's Furniture. There were large and small Uncle Remus piggy banks; we chose the smaller model for the reasonable price of $12.60.

K? We passed on the round and imposing Aunt Jemima piggy bank.

UNION BRIDGE

UNION BRIDGE -- Home of a wonderful railroad museum, which was closed the day The Sun came to town. The news can drive a daily allowance to drink. At the Union Bridge Liquors & Deli, peppermint Schnapps is a cool $10.39. There's dust on the bottle, so you know it's aged properly.

"Convalescent Aids. Discount Priced" is the sign in the Union Bridge Pharmacy. Although our health is reasonably good, you never know. We buy an $8.13 orthopedic fracture bed pan because life can't be all cigars, Schnapps and lingerie.

"Do you have a bookstore in town?" we ask the gentle woman at the pharmacy, who starts to laugh. Not a small laugh, either.

"You're in Union Bridge," she says.

Not anymore.

NEW WINDSOR

NEW WINDSOR -- $49.56 spent. We would easily spend the balance for a Julia Roberts autograph, or even a lock of her eyebrow. She and Richard Gere are here filming a movie in the old church across the street. (Bet they get at least $90 a day for allowance.) Not much to do but stand around with the town folk, hoping Julia or Richard will wave or breathe our way.

Not much to do at all -- except visit the Serrv International Gift Shop, where handcrafts from 40 countries are displayed. A little voice -- perhaps the voice of Commissioner Dell -- tells us what we must buy next. It's so obvious.

For $15.70, we leave the gift shop with a musical instrument from Cameroon: a shaker made of goat nails. Perhaps now Julia will notice us.

WESTMINSTER

WESTMINSTER -- Back again. Must drop in at Baugher's Fruit Market for a quickie pickup of cider ($2.49 a half-gallon) and a squash roughly the shape of Homer Simpson's head ($1.60). In the Frederick newspaper, a front-page story says substitute teachers there will now earn $70 a day. Let's see what's harder -- being a county commissioner or substitute teacher?

But there's no time to dwell on great injustices. We have a date with a bowling alley.

HAMPSTEAD

HAMPSTEAD -- This afternoon, Greenmount Bowl ("Tenpin and Duckpin") on Main Street is nearly deserted.

A poster says somebody named Jay Blizzard bowled a 278 here. We nearly top that -- in the course of two games.

Bowling isn't normally considered the act of a desperate spender, but it's become a struggle to spend $90 in a responsible civic way. And bowling is still so cheap! Shoe rental: 75 cents. Two games: $4.50.

They need a pro baseball team in this town. We'd be home by now and quite broke.

WESTMINSTER

WESTMINSTER -- All roads lead back here. The town keeps pulling us back, this time to the Westminster Antique Mall. Feeling fiscally reckless, we buy a plastic-encased copy of Life magazine dated Nov. 17, 1972. The cover is a frightening close-up of Richard Nixon just after re-election. "What will Nixon do with it?" the headline asks.

Is it worth the $7.35? No, but even its purchase leaves us with $8.05. And the day is old.

FINKSBURG

FINKSBURG -- Money-drunk now, just driving aimlessly. Ready to throw the remaining eight bucks out the window. Could back to Hampstead and bowl a few more games but frankly, the right arm is sore. Pitiful. Last stop: Sandy Mount United Methodist Church, just as the sun fades over its populated cemetery. The last $8.05 is stuffed into an envelope. The envelope is wedged into a door seam.

Ninety whole dollars in a day and just when you think you can't give it away.

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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