Carroll officials predict a stormy budget process this year, clouded by the possibility of hefty state budget cuts affecting road projects, public schools and higher education.
The proposed 2004 budget, which the commissioners expect to receive in about two weeks, will include about $239 million in operating expenses and about $53 million for one-time building (capital) projects, said Ted Zaleski, the county's budget director. The operating budget would be about the same as 2003, and although the capital budget would be about $15 million smaller than this year's, such year-to-year swings in construction spending are not unusual.
The problem, Zaleski said, is that a projected $1.4 billion state deficit could lead to cuts in state education spending that would in turn force the commissioners to shift money from other departments to cover the shortfalls or eliminate some services altogether.
"The state has a very difficult problem without a clear blueprint for solving it," he said. "That leaves us in the position of knowing that we're probably going to have to deal with a problem somewhere, but not knowing where it's going to be."
Worse, he added, is that current projections show the county unable to pay for all its existing services in the 2005 budget. Any significant additions to a proposed 2004 budget could put it further in the hole and make 2005 a nightmare, Zaleski said.
"That's why I've really been pounding on the message that the time is coming when I'm going to have to say 'yes' to some but 'no' to others," he said.
Zaleski frequently has interjected pessimism about the budget into county meetings during the past several months. His mentality seems to have rubbed off on his bosses.
When asked last week about the budget, four-term Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge responded with a groan.
"There's just so much uncertainty with the state," she said.
County department heads have delivered less aggressive pitches for their budgets than in previous years. Many have expressed their sympathies for Zaleski's predicament during budget sessions, which began last week.
The state's projected deficit does not have much direct effect on Carroll's budget. But in their scramble to cover that deficit, state legislators might move money out of programs that are jointly funded by the state and county. That would leave program administrators short on cash and cause many to seek more money from the commissioners, Zaleski said.
"It's hard to look at the overall picture and not see the strong possibility of people coming to the commissioners for help," he said.
Zaleski speculated that programs for elderly residents, many supported by state grants, might be hit hard. He also said that Carroll Community College might suffer cuts. He said he wouldn't be surprised to see public schools take a hit, either.
Zaleski projected that about 53 percent of the operating budget would go to county schools. Significant building expenses would include $13 million for the proposed Parr's Ridge Elementary School in Mount Airy, $8 million for road projects, $7 million for agricultural land preservation and $1 million for a regional park in South Carroll.
Though Zaleski has informally briefed the commissioners on the budget, he will deliver his formal proposed budget early next month. The commissioners will then have an opportunity to tinker with the plan. Zaleski said he expects the commissioners, two of whom will be preparing a budget for the first time, to recommend changes in spending priorities.
Zaleski then will incorporate those recommendations and release copies of the proposed budget to the public in late April. The commissioners have scheduled a public hearing on the budget for May 8. After that session, they will have a final chance to change the budget, which they are scheduled to approve in late May.