Saying they have created a more cooperative atmosphere within county government, the Carroll County commissioners outlined yesterday their accomplishments in their first year in office, which included fostering an era of open government and taking steps to control residential growth.
At the same time, the three commissioners said the county faces challenges in finding ways to pay for an increased demand in services as the county continues to grow.
Speaking before 200 people in their annual State of the County speeches, the commissioners said federal and state requirements, including the No Child Left Behind Act and the implementation of all-day kindergarten, have placed a heavy burden on county finances.
"The big question is money," Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said. "It is an easy thing to say 'cut the budget,' but where and who will it hurt? ... Seventy-five percent of our operating budget relates to items that are mandated by either the state or federal government. That leaves 25 percent of the budget that we have the ability to cut."
Delivered before a Carroll County Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Westminster, the commissioners' speeches also pushed a proposal to impose a transfer tax on real estate transactions as a means to pay for increased demand for schools and for fire, police and emergency services brought on by growth. The commissioners need the General Assembly's approval to levy the tax, which would generate $5 million a year.
Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr., a Union Bridge volunteer firefighter, told the crowd that fire and police personnel are facing a greater demand for services. Last year, Jones said, the county's volunteer firefighters handled 15,470 calls, about 1,000 more than in the previous year.
In an effort to beef up round-the-clock ambulance service in the county, Jones said, the commissioners approved a plan yesterday to distribute $1.9 million in emergency medical funds to the county's volunteer firefighters. But with more fire stations offering 24-7 emergency medical services, the county expects to pay $1.5 million in operating costs a year, Jones said.
Faith in the staff
Commissioners said they addressed many of the issues they campaigned on, including opening the policy-making process to the public and creating a cooperative working relationship with county staff and state officials.
"We had stated very clearly during our campaigns we would not micromanage but use the talents of our staff to full advantage," Gouge said. "Our staff needed time to realize we meant what we had said, and that we had faith in them as individuals and we were open to their ideas."
The commissioners, along with state and Baltimore officials, signed the Watershed Protection Agreement last year, renewing an accord to protect the area's drinking water from rampant development. They also supported the creation of the Council of Governments, which included officials from all eight of the county's municipalities and representatives from the Finksburg and Freedom areas.
Perhaps the most talked-about campaign promise they fulfilled involved controlling residential growth. The commissioners imposed a yearlong freeze on such development in June.
"The growth issue was one we knew would be controversial, and it has been," Gouge said. "But we had to address it if we were going to retain the beauty and the farmland of Carroll County."
Freeze on building
The freeze closed the door to new subdivisions on lands covered by adequate-facilities laws, which are designed to prevent growth from overwhelming county services. There are about 90 such projects - with more than 1,000 lots - affected by the freeze.
Several developers have filed lawsuits in Carroll County Circuit Court to challenge the freeze on development. A Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the developers in two of the suits, forcing the county to process three subdivision plans. The county appealed the decision to the state Court of Special Appeals.
During the speeches, the commissioners also worked to dispel reports that they doubled the number of county employees, not including the Sheriff's Department and the Circuit Court.
The county employs 614 people. That is one fewer than when the commissioners took office in December 2002, said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.
"You hear a lot about our special assistants. Would the assistants to the special assistants stand up?" Minnich said as the crowd laughed.
Another report that Minnich disputed was a suggestion that the commissioners are interested in creating a countywide fire department.
"Not true," he said. "We believe in the tradition of volunteers."