During a recent evening of friendly discussion with educators in Prince George's County about The Post's local news coverage --and specifically, metropolitan versus separate county/city zoned editions--school board member Bonnie Johns posed an interesting question: if all road signs, license plates and other jurisdictional indicators around the Greater Washington area were removed, would we be able to tell where we were?
Her point was not just that streets and buildings around the region may look similar, but that the interests, achievements and shortcomings of the various local governments, as well as the people they serve, are more alike than not. While the composition of certain neighborhoods may differ markedly--not to mention various local tax burdens--the concerns of residents are not nearly so insular as the political boundaries would lead us to believe.
Just look at the big news in the space of a single recent week from around the region, and already you have the Top Local Story for 1983:
Item: Virginia Gov. Charles Robb says the state's projected revenue shortfall will grow to $305 million over the next two years, forcing a new and more drastic round of spending cuts that could touch "every item in the budget."
Item: Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes cites the possibility of increasing the state's property tax, holding instant lotteries and taking other economic measures to offset a projected $125 million shortfall in next year's budget.
Item: D.C. Mayor Marion Barry warns of stiff budget cuts in the face of a projected revenue gap of $109 million in the budget for the current fiscal year.
Item: Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening, with a government financially saddled by the TRIM ceiling on property tax revenues, considers seeking authority from the state for an optional penny local sales tax.
Item: Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist says he's looking at a possible $11 million deficit that will have to be made up this year, and an even greater amount next year, which may mean raising a number of fees.
Item: Arlington County finds some good news in the bad, in the discovery that lower inflation, gasoline prices and other savings have clipped the projected deficit from $6.7 million to $2.4 million.
Item: Alexandria officials so far are looking at perhaps a $2.4-million deficit.
Item: Fairfax County--depending on which local official you ask and how you phrase the question--either has a balanced but tight budget in the offing, a slight surplus, or impending bad news once state revenue and Metro cost figures roll in.
Great Big Item: Metro--offspring of all the above governments, raised with loving care and local generosity--now threatens to eat everyone out of house and home, and is creating tensions between members of the regional family.
So it goes, wherever you live or work-- which brings us back to the mutual concerns department: the money shortages throughout Greater Washington are interrelated, and the consequences will not respect political boundaries. From a recession and tight federal money come stingier state governments; that translates into local penny-pinching, layoffs in and out of government and perhaps still lower revenue yields from depressed consumer spending.
Exactly how each local government will reach into its taxpayers' pockets this year will vary, as will the impact of its spending cuts on specific programs and services. But here, too, what one locality does on one side of the river could have a critical effect on a jurisdiction on the other side. If you're a teacher, for example, any layoffs or cutbacks in, say, Prince George's increase the pressures for all job-seeking teachers in the region. Similarly, if you live in Alexandria and teach in Montgomery County, possible changes in the county's sales tax or user fees could have profound effects on your income.
This is why--despite the increasing strains that hard financial times may create between local governments--all the local and state leaders work remarkably well together in seeking an even more sophisticated regional approach to such staggering financial challenges as public transit, sewage treatment, housing patterns and business development. Without fanfare or screaming headlines, the governors, mayors, county executives, state senators, delegates, council members and staff experts from Annapolis to the District Building to Richmond are in constant contact. With respect for each other's political positions, they keep looking for new, mutually acceptable ways to raise and pool money for Metro, to coordinate hospital services, to get the most out of any federal dollars still offered to area governments.
So there are important reasons for sharing news of developments in one locality with readers in another jurisdiction; we are all "metropolitan" in this sense, even though we like at the same time to read more details of the truly "close to home" news. No matter how these two appetites are satisfied, or whatever happens to the economy nationally, we can be sure that neither variety of local news will be in short supply in either fiscal or calendar 1983.