The executives from the Baltimore region's two biggest counties warned yesterday that their budgets - and the services they provide to residents - could be decimated if the state doesn't legalize slot machines or raise taxes.
"Draconian" was the word Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. used to describe the potential effects of a state budget balanced through cuts instead of revenue increases.
The cuts in aid to counties in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed budget for 2003-2004 are bad enough, the executives said, but additional reductions could be a huge problem.
"Please, if you're going to cut local governments, cut me all at once. Don't give me slow death by a thousand cuts," Owens said. "As a result of the governor's proposal, I already have department heads putting cuts in place. It doesn't look good."
Speaking on the Marc Steiner Show on WYPR 88.1 FM, Smith publicly endorsed slots for the first time. He said he doesn't think they're the best way to erase a structural deficit over the long term, but he has asked the county's legislators to support a modified version of the governor's proposal.
Although Owens said her county is in difficult financial straits, she stopped short of endorsing slots as a solution. Anne Arundel saw slot machines up close when they were legal there before 1963 and knows the problems that they can create, Owens said. She is calling for a referendum to let voters decide the issue.
Both executives agreed that the governor's original proposal allotted too small a share of slots revenue to local governments to pay for infrastructure improvements the machines would require.
The other major problem the counties are dealing with, Owens and Smith said, is uncertainty. The state's murky budget picture is making it nearly impossible to craft operating budgets for the coming year.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do if I don't know what the cuts are," Smith said.
If the governor's original budget proposal could be frozen, Smith said he could live with the $14 million in cuts the county would endure in the coming fiscal year
The county did not increase its operating budget significantly during the boom years of the 1990s and has been able to weather cuts and declining revenues without drastic spending reductions.
Owens said her county is in worse shape, largely because of a limit on property tax increases that Anne Arundel voters approved a decade ago.
She said she has told municipal unions that the county will be unable to afford 3 percent cost-of-living increases. If more cuts are coming from the state, Owens said, she needs to know.
"We're frankly planning with a crystal ball," Owens said.