The voters who approved the revenue-limiting TRIM charter amendment in Prince George's County may not notice any difference in their tax bills this year, but the changes they initiated in their local government and its services already are taking place.
The normal flow of new legislation in County Council and school board meetings has diminished to a trickle in recent weeks as politicians around the county try to avoid any appearance of waste. At the same time, faced with the demands of citizens for increased funding or new programs, school board and County Council members are responding with grim lectures on fiscal constraints, while simultaneuosly seeking to avoid the blame for possible cuts.
The school board's public hearings on its preliminary budget next year were colored by the feeling of crisis, bordering on fear, that has overtaken board members. Most members realize they eventually may be forced to cut millions of dollars from an already tight budget.
Eight citizens asked to address the first public hearing in Oxon Hill recently, and for half an hour one speaker after another pleaded for increased funding. More money for the talented and gifted, they asked.More money for foreign language programs. More money for the handicapped.
When the hearing was over, board president Norman H. Saunders raised his head from his notes and stared out at the audience of over 100. "I would just like to ask," he said, "Of those here in the audience who voted for TRIM, how many would still vote for it if you knew it could mean cutting back on school programs."
The auditorium was suddenly quiet. "Just think about it," Saunders said. "It's something to think about."
At a second budget hearing in Greenbelt, the pressure Saunders and other board members feel unconsciously was summed up by William J. Kelly, who rose to respond to Saunders' challenge.
"The people I've talked to in College Park think that TRIM is the best thing that ever happened to this county," Kelly said. He then went on to add that he and his neighbors believed the school board had no right to close any of the county's under-enrolled elementary schools, despite the estimated savings of $100,000 per school in the first year.
"Yes, I am afraid of what TRIM will do to us," said school board member Susan B. Bieniasz, whose constitutents in Cheverly already are campaigning to prevent the closing of their elementary school, even though the board will not vote on it until March. "We are going to have to cut back, and it's going to hit where it's going to hurt people. But how do you do this? What do you find? I really don't know."
The meetings of both the school board and the County Council become increasingly uneventful in the last two months. "It's been very, very slow," said councilman Parris N. Glendening, "and I think to a large extent it's deliberate on the part of council members. No one wants to introduce any legislation, because most legislation means making expenditures. This just isn't the time for that."
The school board has gone even farther. Starting this month, the board is trying out a new procedure of devoting half of its twice-monthly meetings strictly to reviewing programs already in place. Under the new rules, the board will only be able to consider new business once a month.
Although the school board already is meeting in budget work sessions, the real time of decision -- and cutting -- will not come for either the board or the County Council until late spring, after county Executive Lawrence J. Hogan has submitted his budget on March 31. Both bodies must pass a new budget by next June 30, when the fiscal 1980 will begin.
Rather than initiate new spending, the school board and the council in recent days have adopted a new activity as citizen groups form to protest the possible closings of 10 elementary schools and other program reductions. Council member Sue V. Mills calls it, "passing the hot potato until somebody gets burnt."
The aim of the potato-passing, as practiced by county politicians, is to avoid getting the blame for the inevitable budget cuts. At Tuesday's council meeting, for example, Mills and Glendening proposed that a letter be sent to the school board pointing out that the council members had never believed that fiscal constraint made school closings necessary. Mills said that school officials were creating the opposite impression.
By the time Mills' fellow council members were through with the proposed letter, the wording had been changed to say: "In a time of declining enrollments and tight budgets, school closures are inevitable."
That change, a sarcastic Mills said later, "justified what the school people are saying about us. Now the quilt falls on both shoulders."
Several council members made it clear that they would accept no responsibility for what they knew the school board would have to do. "This is playing politics," said Councilman Floyd Wilson Jr. "The school board goes out and incites the most emotional reaction possible this year (as a budgetary tactic) without ever considering the waste that's going on. The only time they come to us is when the decision's too hot to handle."
"No matter what kind of letter you send over there,' added Councilman David G. Hartlove, "the school board is going to try and turn it around and give us the dirty end of the stick." Over at the school board. Bienias responded, "the board is getting defensive about the council and the executive. What we're concerned about is that they will make line cuts in general areas, and then it will be up to us to handle it. We'll have the responsibility for the actual cuts."
Bieniasz was optimistic. "I think the citizens are aware of what they did with TRIM," she said. "I think they must know that some things are just going to have to be cut back. That's what they want -- that's what they voted for."