Edna Barry has every right to be angry about the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders, the voters rebellion better known as TRIM that three years ago clamped a tight lid on property taxes and government spending in Prince George's County.
As a union leader, she has seen her rank and file work without a contract or what she regards as an adequate pay raise. As a county worker, she has seen her own accounts payable office go from seven to six clerks.
In general, however, Barry isn't bitter. In fact, she voted for TRIM and believes that services haven't significantly suffered.
"I feel that there was waste, and the taxpayer had to put a stop to it," she said, adding that government is "doing it better now because they're made to do it better."
The TRIM movement was launched by a group of dissident Democrats in the wake of California's tax-slashing Proposition 13 and, with the eventual support of established politicians running for office, the local initiative won overwhelming approval in the fall of 1978. But unlike Proposition 13 and its Massachusetts cousin, Proposition 2 1/2, TRIM tampers only with local taxes: freezing the amount of money that can be raised through property taxes in Prince George's County, not those levied by the state.
Nonetheless, opponents of the grass-roots revolution predicted the worst. Public services, they said, would be destroyed by populism run amok.
Now, despite their earlier apocalyptic visions, even TRIM's critics grudgingly agree with Barry. This local version of the taxpayers' revolt apparently has resulted in government doing more with less.
With a national administration bent on proving the same thing, the Prince George's County experience may be grist for the conservative mill. That the top manager in this case is a Republican county executive, Lawrence J. Hogan, may make the scenario even more appealing to partisan observers.
But such nonpartisan sources as the University of Maryland's Bureau of Governmental Research at least partly concur in the assessment by Edna Barry and others. The county government, its researchers report, has responded to "fiscal stress" by keeping down spending while avoiding "highly visible service cutbacks or personnel layoffs." And while doomsday forecasts still are being made by many, including the university researchers, the day of reckoning continues to be postponed. In the meantime:
The county's comparative tax load on the average homeowner has gone from first in the region in 1978 to fifth among 10 jurisdictions, according to a new survey. The average homeowner saw his tax bill decline by $94 in two years.
Wages paid county workers, once among the region's highest, are less competitive, causing what critics contend is a brain drain of middle managers but with effects almost impossible to measure.
Budgets have increased but, despite double-digit inflation, only half as fast as before.
In fact, Hogan has submitted budgets based on revenue collections well within the TRIM limit of $142.8 million, the level for 1979, a practice that has angered critics crying for more services while cushioning the short-term effects by generating a year-to-year surplus.
As part of his administration's "increased attention to management techniques" since taking office in January 1979, Hogan has generated a steady flow of memos and press releases, exhorting and trumpeting a variety of cost-cutting measures from eliminating free coffee to save more than $20,000 to consolidating employes' health and life insurance plans, a $400,000 saving.
Hogan claims credit, too, for reducing alleged overtime abuse by $508,500; saving $100,000 in fringe benefits by hiring parttimers; recruiting volunteers to work in various county programs; conserving energy to the tune of $597,246 in the last year; initiating new money management methods to improve the yield from cash investments; reducing the long-term capital debt by paying cash instead of borrowing for certain capital projects, and selling surplus property for $2.1 million.
In the works are additional cost-cutting measures, including combining the police and fire communications systems -- now separate and scattered in three locations -- into one to be housed in a former elementary school near the Beltway, and the consolidation of county and school board printing plants.
To keep things moving along, monthly productivity progress reports are required and departments heads have been instructed to use "action verbs" and "milestone lists" in describing their goals and progress. The county even has a "Wastewatcher's Award Program."
Rhetoric notwithstanding, Hogan's policies seem to have inspired a new creativity among county workers, who pridefully talk of their accomplishments under taxpayer-mandated constraints.
"We've done very well in spite of TRIM," boasted a library official. "We have closed no libraries -- in fact, we opened two new ones -- and hours haven't been curtailed." She said that the county-wide library staff has shrunk by 90 jobs, as they became vacant, and the number of part-time workers has increased.
"To some extent, TRIM has been very useful as a management tool," said a school official who requested anonymity. "Lacking any other excuse to reduce programs, you can blame it on TRIM. It's a great scapegoat for making these [necessary] cutbacks."
"TRIM did what it had to do," said Parris N. Glendening, the County Council chairman and a Democrat critical of the measure, who now says it was necessary to "get the mule to move" in eliminating fat and waste in government. "You cut a lot of marginal but nonessential programs. It's not the type of thing where you wake up one moring and say, 'Hey, there are no buses, no cops.'"
There are, however, enough elements to suggest that more than management skills may be at work and that, in fact, the crunch could come in the not-too-distant future ad Reaganomics works its will in Congress and the legislature reducing the amount of outside aid available to counties.
"There will be a serious service curtailment," cautions Glendening. "We're right at the edge."
So far, several fortuitous events have served to delay the crunch that critics continue to insist is just around the corner. A mile winter and a slight drop in fuel prices, for example, helped the county fiscal picture. And a sharp decline in pupil enrollment has coincided with decisions to shut down and sell surplus schools and the elimination, by attrition, of nearly 1,300 educational jobs.
To save money, not only have schools been closed but sections of schools still operating have been closed off to cut custodial and utility costs.
"We've begun to cannibalize and live on our carcass in both materials and staff," said Elliott Robertson, assistant superintendent for business and facilities -- a post once filled by two persons.
"There have been some bites into programs," said Edward Felegy, assistant superintendent for administration and personnel, adding, "You can't claim it's directly related to TRIM.' Nonetheless, he said, the "psychology of TRIM" has affected the system, especially during the difficult contract negotiations with unions representing teachers and classified workers, whose increases haven't kept pace with inflation.
Five local unions representing county workers also have seen their wishes slashed by TRIM. An unsuccessful strike by county workers last summer, triggered by Hogan's refusal to come to terms with their leaders, has left a bitter aftertaste, but whether services have suffered is hotly disputed.
Paul Manner, area representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes, contends they have, but is hard put to provide specifics.
"The only thing I have is an assertion," he said. "You get what you pay for."
Charles Parker, president of AFCSME's Local 2462, which represents public works employes, blames TRIM for reducing the number of workers in his department but some 40 to 50 "volunteers" sentenced to serve weekends for minor violations of the law have helped get the job done, he said.
"Yes, there's a little fat in every budget," said Manner, "but what do you do when the fat is gone and there's nothing but the bone?"
The question is being asked -- and answered -- by social scientists, politicians and others. Even Hogan has said that TRIM may have to be modified. Last year, some citizens tried to do just that but were unable to muster the needed signatures. As things stand now, the county cannot collect more than it did in 1979, fortunately a peak year. That means the $500 million in new construction underway in Prince George's can net the county nothing in additional income.
Any modification "should give us a factor for inflation and new properties on the tax rolls," said Hogan, carefully sidestepping charged matter should come before the voters. "The crunch would not come if the County Council has the courage to stand up to special interests," he said. (Council's action Friday, reducing property taxes by only 8 instead of 19.8 cents per $100 of assessed value, as Hogan had requested, may hasten the day, his aides said.)
While Democrats, who dominate the council, say an infusion of state aid in recent years rather than Hogan has helped make ends meet, the Republican county executive points to a belt-tightening budget this year without any decline in services, despite a precipitous drop in funds from Annapolis. In fact, he says, the State of Maryland could learn some lessons from Larry Hogan.
"Maryland has been like a sailor on shore leave, spending money and hiring people," said Hogan, an advocate of state spending limits. Democratic Gov. Harry Hughes, he said, "Should've cut all the waste out of state government, just like we did here."