High hopes, low funds; Board is limited in spending plan by lack of growth; $268 million recommended; Suggested budget favors school money over road projects


Forced to balance requests ranging from $5,000 for an electrocardiograph machine to $34.4 million for a new Westminster high school, the Carroll County commissioners are drafting a budget that would neither change the tax rate nor dramatically increase funding for education, law enforcement or emergency services.

"We simply will not be able to meet everyone's expectations," county budget director Steven D. Powell has said during discussions about the budget for fiscal year 2001, which begins July 1. The Board of Education alone is requesting $9 million in new funding, an increase larger than all new revenue available to the county.

"That's the context under which we're working," Powell said.

He has blamed the limited budget growth on a lack of industrial and commercial development. A $1.1 million gap between income tax projections and receipts has also limited increases in spending.

The budget offers a snapshot of the county's priorities, and a glimpse of what Carroll will look like in the coming years. If the commissioners embrace Powell's suggestions, more teachers will be in front of students, but county roads will still need improvement, particularly in South Carroll, where the demand for services is greatest.

Some road projects in the Freedom Area might be put on hold, the county's Volunteer Firemen's Association might have to do without a training area for its tactical rescue team and William Winchester Elementary might have to delay construction of a new playground.

Powell has recommended a $268 million spending plan that is based on the current property tax rate of $2.62 per $100 of assessed value, and a local "piggyback" income tax of 55 percent of the state income tax.

The commissioners have repeatedly said they would not increase taxes.

On Friday, with Powell's assistance, the commissioners began drafting the formal budget behind closed doors. If they adopt Powell's recommendations, Carroll will spend $202 million to cover the day-to-day cost of county government, up from $193 million this year, and $66 million for capital improvements, down from $72 million this year.

The commissioners' work on the spending plan follows two weeks of public work sessions where county agencies had the opportunity to make pitches for increased funding.

The school board, the firefighters' association and the sheriff's department asked for additional money.

Firefighters' requests

"The county's recommended spending plan is totally unacceptable to the fire department," Bill Eyler, chairman of the department's budget committee, told the commissioners.

He noted the need for new protective equipment, a thermal-imaging camera and a wellness program that includes a stress test and physical exam. The department is seeking $5.6 million; the county budget office has recommended spending $4.8 million.

"We will give strong consideration to your requests because we know what you do for us," Commissioner Donald I. Dell said. "The dedication of the volunteers is amazing."

The commissioners also said they would carefully consider the school system's requests, which range from $45,000 for security cameras to $34.4 million for a new Westminster high school.

The Board of Education has asked for $185.8 million to cover the day-to-day cost of running the county's schools, and about $53 million for construction projects and capital improvement projects.

"We ask you to look at funding the school board budget not as an expenditure but as an investment," Cindy Cummings, president of the teachers union, told the commissioners last week during the school system's public work session. About 100 people attended.

"We need adequate staffing, adequate equipment and adequate salaries," added Donald Hoffman, a teacher at Westminster High School. "I certainly hope you will make the difficult choices and make the right decision."

Last year, school funding became a divisive issue late in the budget process when the commissioners cut $2.8 million from the school spending plan. More than 400 people attended a meeting in May to protest the cut.

Money for policing

Since they took office in November 1998, the commissioners have said they would like to curb crime in the county.

To help meet that goal, Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning has proposed having deputies on duty 24 hours a day, requiring the expansion of his department by 38 deputies over the next five years. The $7.6 million in increased cost would be paid for by collecting fees for housing prisoners for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Carroll has 1.3 sworn police officers per 1,000 residents -- the lowest ratio in the state, Tregoning said.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for May 4 at Westminster High School. The commissioners are expected to adopt a budget May 23.

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