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County to open budget process


Carroll's commissioners have strongly criticized the county legislative delegation for a lack of understanding of the county's fiscal needs and for proposing a tax reduction that could create a $43 million deficit in five years.

To illustrate the soundness of their long-range budgeting, the commissioners for the first time will open the budget development process to residents so that they "know what we do and why," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

"Our hands are being tied by our delegation in Annapolis, who don't even talk to us and who don't know what is going on in the county," Minnich said during a Cabinet meeting Thursday. "We are going to show the Wizard of Oz for what he is."

Without consulting the commissioners, Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of Carroll's all-Republican delegation, submitted a bill that would lower the homestead tax credit by 2 percentage points beginning next year.

"The cap basically protects homeowners against drastic increases in assessments," Haines said.

If it passes, the county will face significant revenue shortfalls that could delay construction of schools, senior centers, parks and a fire training academy, officials said.

"These people are making a political career out of cutting taxes," Minnich said. "If it were that simple, we could get away with outsourcing county government. You need money to run a county."

The homestead tax credit, which the commissioners lowered from 10 percent to 7 percent two years ago, caps the amount a property tax bill can increase annually, despite any increase in assessment.

"The change to 7 percent already creates a loss of $27 million in fiscal 2012," said Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget. "If it is lowered 2 more percent, there would be another $16 million lost for a total of $43 million. That amount cannot help but have implications on what we are trying to do. We cannot go through the budget process without making difficult decisions."

Haines, who owns a Westminster real estate business, calls the estimates "totally off base." The assessable tax base jumped from $7.3 billion to $9.3 billion in the last three years, he said. Other revenues, particularly income tax, will erase any shortfall, he said.

Preliminary budget deliberations, which until now have occurred in closed sessions, will keep the public informed, officials said.

"We can all be proud that we carry a balanced budget every year," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones. "We are opening the process to let people see how we balance."

Minnich said, "Our biggest enemy is the ignorance of the public, and that can be used against us in the work we do."

The commissioners have also written to the delegation, detailing projects residents have long requested.

"Our letter speaks the absolute truth," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "Yet, we hear our delegation has no faith in what we say."

The commissioners were developing a property tax credit for elderly residents on fixed incomes who are facing rising assessments, but Haines' proposal could scuttle that effort, Gouge said.

"We are working to help those who need help the most," she said. "Is the delegation trying to take that away from us?"

But Haines countered: "The seniors will get tax relief, but everyone needs it. The county is flush with money."

Like much of the state, Carroll has a budget surplus this year -- $12 million -- and that prompted Haines' reduction proposal, he said.

"Homeowners need tax relief," Haines said. "We cannot put the tax burden on homeowners simply because the county does not have a high industrial tax base."

The relief per taxpayer would be negligible, but the implications on spending would be wide-ranging, county officials said.

"The issue is not about money, but about what you do with it," said Steven D. Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff and the county's former budget director. "This is about new schools, parks and senior centers."

The county has balanced its five-year capital plan, whereas the state is projecting a deficit within two years, Powell said.

"We have a sound fiscal plan that cannot be trivialized," he said. "You can't sit in Annapolis where you are not managing the county's day-to-day operations and speak so cavalierly."

The commissioners have also recently learned that the state is waffling on its longtime commitment to pay $750,000 -- half the annual operating expenses -- for the county's residential drug treatment center, set for its groundbreaking this spring.

The center would provide treatment for as many as 24 young adult substance abusers for as long as two years.

At the Cabinet session, state police officials told commissioners they had just cracked a burglary ring and arrested six young adults who ransacked 29 homes and sold the stolen goods for drugs.

"This treatment center is about making sure these people are not out there savaging homes here and in other counties," Powell said.

The commissioners have requested a meeting with the delegation to argue the fiscal impacts of Haines' proposal. Carroll's delegates are expected to submit a similar proposal in the House.

"We had our meeting," Haines said. "We are in session now. I will debate with the commissioners anytime, but they need to lower the cap."

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