Exclusive: Informed Carroll Talks with Carroll’s Budget Director About Taxes and Balancing the Budget
In an Informed Carroll exclusive, we sat with Ted Zaleski, Director of Management and Budget at the Carroll County Government.
We had a wide-ranging discussion with Zaleski, who has been with the Carroll County government for nearly 30 years. We learned how the county government manages your money, his views on the county’s financial challenges ahead, and we explored the working relationship between the commissioners and county staff.
Zaleski also recollects the budgeting process during the late 90’s – the last time the commissioner board performed a detailed, line-item review of county expenditures.
Informed Carroll: We really appreciate you coming to talk with us. We’re coming at this from the perspective of educating ourselves and the community on how our government works, and how the budget process works. We watched the budget sessions intently and we’re really excited to be able to ask you some questions that we get from our readers. We appreciate you taking time to meet with us to share your expertise and experience.
Ted: Thank you for having me.
Informed Carroll: So for those that don’t know you or aren’t familiar with the inner workings of Carroll County government, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your role within the organization?
Ted: I’m the Director of Management and Budget for the county. I’ve been with the county for almost 30 years, about 22 of those as the director.
I have responsibility for the budget, which is what people mostly see, but risk management and grants also fall under me. I’m involved in a number of other things related to the Maryland Association of Counties and other budget and finance affiliate groups that basically include people like me across the state.
I’m also the Vice Chair on the Board of Trustees for the local government insurance trust.
Informed Carroll: We understand you had initially reached out to us regarding a comment we made in a recent article published about the budget. What was it that caught your attention about that particular writing?
Ted: There was one comment that suggested Commissioner Rothstein and I were waiting for the rest of the board to rubber stamp. It made it sound as if he and I had made it all out and we’re just waiting for everybody else to nod their heads.
My job isn’t to get them to agree to my ideas. My job is to help them get to a workable budget based on their ideas.
Now, I along with the budget office put together a recommended budget, but we know that that’s only a starting point and it’s never the ending point. And much of that is just recognition that the commissioners don’t have the time to devote to every little piece of what’s in the budget.
So we build off of previous plans. We build off of whatever direction we think we have from the commissioners and give them those recommendations.
Informed Carroll: Fair enough. As you rightly said, it’s the commissioners who are ultimately the decision makers and are responsible for approving the budget at the direction of the staff. But would you agree that you and other county staff play a significant and influential role in the process?
Ted: Of course.
Informed Carroll: You’ve seen commissioner boards come and go, and you’re one of the steady people that are there to have seen budget decisions all the way through, and you know the history behind a lot of the decisions that are made.
So even though you’re not an elected official, you still play a big part of that process.
Ted: No doubt. The point is really not so much, do I have an important part to play, but am I the one making the calls? No. And I can tell you over years, boards of commissioners have made many decisions that I didn’t agree with.
Our job then is to implement the plan that they’ve put in place and go make that happen.
Informed Carroll: In one of the budget sessions, Commissioner Gordon had suggested that the commissioners need to do the budget process “completely different” next year. What do you think he meant and what do you think he was suggesting?
Ted: I don’t know. Actually, Roberta Wyndham (County Administrator) and I are planning to follow up on that to see if we can’t get a little bit more definition. We need to try and understand a little bit more what it is.
Informed Carroll: One of the things we were thinking that maybe he was insinuating that the commissioners need to get into a deeper level of detail.
You were saying before too that commissioners historically haven’t had the time to get to that level of detail and that they’re reliant on staff to kind of come up with recommendations.
What are your thoughts on that?
Ted: Well, that’s definitely a possibility. I don’t know if that’s what he’s saying, but that could be. That’s their choice. We will do what we need to do, but kind of where you are going, if that’s what they want, then they also need to be willing to put in the time commitment to do it.
Informed Carroll: Have you ever seen past commissioner boards take the time to dig deeper and how did that go?
Ted: The closest thing I could think of actually was a very long time ago. It was the late 90’s when Donald Dell was serving in office. I think it was the Gates-Dell-Brown board. They had the papers in front of them and they looked at every line of the budget.
Informed Carroll: It sounds like the process you’ve been a part of with respect to budgeting has changed over the years. Do you have a general opinion about the current process? What works well? Are there things that, if you had a magic wand, you would change about the process?
Ted: Budgets get done all kinds of different ways. Any approach has some series of trade-offs, much like we were just talking about, how deep do you go versus how much time are you going to put in. I’m okay with the way our process works.
There are some things you wish could work a little bit differently. The stronger the sense of where a board wants to go that we have at the beginning puts us in a stronger position to handle the process.
We often know some things that individual commissioners are interested in better than we know what the five of them as a board want, or at least three of them as a board want. So sometimes the deliberation time gets used up trying to get to that point. If you could be there at the beginning, that would give you more room to do things.
Informed Carroll: It’s our understanding that this past year’s budget gap was addressed using one-time funds that were taken from capital projects. It was about 3.8 million or 3.6 million. It became a debate amongst the commissioners, with one of the board members claiming that using one-time funds was “masking the problem”.
We got a lot of questions from our readers about this situation. Tell me if this is a fair analogy, but if I had bills or debt to pay and I received a $1000 tax refund, the responsible thing for me as an individual to do would be to pay those bills. I’m not going to go and spend it on new appliances and home improvement projects because it’s one-time money.
What are your thoughts on this?
Ted: No, I fully understand the thought process. However, I think if that tax refund was used to pay off recurring bills, then the problem is you still have the recurring bills, and you don’t know that you’re going to have the tax refund again.
Now, if what we’re paying off was a one-time purchase thanI think that makes perfect sense, but the concern we have right now is paying recurring bills.
And in the end, if you’re in that situation, there’s only two things you can do. You either raise taxes so that you have more money to balance it or you reduce services so that you’re spending less money to balance it.
And the problem with both is almost nobody wants either of those things. And even people who will say, well, you just need to cut the budget are usually saying that in a very vague sort of way without actually saying what it is that we’re going to spend less on.
An easy answer that people often would go to is, well, you just need to cut everything across the board. It sounds good, but there are a couple of problems with it. One is that it assumes we have no priorities, and that everything is the same priority, and I don’t believe that.
For example, we run the 911 center and we have Parks and Recreation. If we had to cut the budget, I think almost everybody would agree 911 is a higher priority than Parks and Recreation. Now, when you start looking at everything, it gets a lot more complicated, but it doesn’t change that basic idea.
Informed Carroll: We recall that being a comment from Commissioner Guerin where he suggested doing a percentage cut across the whole budget to close the $6 million difference. And we recall you having a similar response then too, which was that it was not that simple.
Ted: And you might remember from then, the other piece of it was that we can’t actually apply an across the board cut to everything.
An across-the-board cut to the school system, the circuit court, state’s attorney’s office and board of elections would be difficult to do. And of course, we can’t cut debt service.
There’s a lot of things you just can’t apply it to. And some of the places where you have the authority to apply it in practice, it doesn’t work. For example, we have parts of the budget where you can’t cut 5%. For example, maybe in a department you have four people and you have some office supplies. You can cut their budget 25% by eliminating a position, but you can’t cut it by 5%.
Informed Caroll: It seems like we kind of got by this particular budget year by the skin of our teeth. We know we have more challenging out-years ahead of us, particularly with some unknowns that are on the table like Blueprint and Fire/EMS, where we’re still realizing some of the change that’s needed and the costs associated with that change.
If we could ask, what are your thoughts on things that could be explored in terms of cuts. And to borrow a term from Commissioner Guerin, we’re not talking a “decrease to the increase”, but actually reduce spending.
Ted: Well, anywhere the commissioners have the authority to control the spending, I think can be explored. And if they want to do a significant change, that should be explored.
Like I said, there’s a lot of limitations though. There’s a big part of the budget that they have either no control over or limited control over.
And we talk about cuts and to your point. A few different ways to think about that. One could be you have $100 this year, next year we’re getting $90. That’s a cut. If you hold a budget flat, that doesn’t look like a cut, but arguably, unless costs aren’t increasing, it actually is a cut because you will not be able to afford everything that you did the previous year.
If you get an increase in your funding, how that increase matches up to the increase in costs to provide the same level of service also needs to be considered.
So you have to think about it in different ways. Now, as far as me recommending places to cut, no, that’s not a place I’m willing to go because then we’re getting into policy decisions. That’s where the commissioners are making the choices on reducing public tax dollars or public services. I mean, that’s the core of their basic policy making responsibility.
Another thing I’ve said to many people many times over the years, the budget is the policy document. If you want to know what a government’s priorities are, you go look at the budget.
Informed Carroll: Given what the out-years are going to look like, do you foresee a path forward that doesn’t involve tax increases? Again, I know we’re talking about policy, but we appreciate whatever you’re comfortable sharing with us.
Ted: First I want to be clear that I make no plans that assume tax rate changes. I wait until I know that that’s happening before I try to do something with it. So in terms of a path forward, if we don’t want to reduce the level of services, then yes, I say there’s no answer other than you need more money.
Reducing the level of services remains an option, an unpalatable one, but you have to, unless something changes, you’re still left with choosing to do one or the other or some combination of them.
There’s no magic solution.
Informed Carroll: Well, I think we covered all our questions. Ted, we just want to thank you again for spending the time with us. As we mentioned, what we’re trying to do is give a service to the community so they can better understand how the government works, and more specifically, how budgeting works. It’s such an important part of our process, and like you said, it drives the priorities of our county. So I think this conversation was really beneficial to us.
So just thank you again for sharing your insight with us today. We really appreciate it.
Ted: You’re welcome. Feel free to give me a call or email me anytime. I’m glad to talk.