A slumping economy is shifting attention in the Howard County executive's race from controlling development, now on the downswing after a booming decade, to managing money during a time of approaching austerity.
Controlling growth remains a hot issue, with a battle pending after the election over County Executive Elizabeth Bobo's legislation that would slow growth in areas where roads and schools are overburdened.
But the downturn in the economy has left homebuilding on the ropes in the region, and tax revenues spawned by new development are shrinking. That leaves the next executive with some tough fiscal choices.
The issue of financial stewardship took center stage recently whenthe county administrator asked department heads to submit contingency budget reductions of 5 percent to 10 percent because of an anticipated shortfall of $5 million.
Charles I. Ecker, the Republican challenging Ms. Bobo in thNov. 6 election, said the shortfall bore out his prediction that the key issue for the next four years would be financial management.
"I've been saying since last April that the main problem is financial because of the runaway spending of this county executive and slowdown in business generally," said Mr. Ecker, who has criticized Ms. Bobo for increasing spending 88 percent in four years.
Mr. Ecker, a 61-year-old resident of the Columbia area, said his experience managing budgets as a deputy superintendent of schools made him "the best choice for county executive during the '90s, when we have some hard budgetary choices to make."
Ms. Bobo, 46, also of the Columbia area, dismissed the criticisms, saying she had expanded government to keep up with growing demands for police protection, tougher inspection of new developments springing up across the county and new services such as recycling.
"Clearly, there could be difficult times ahead, but I believe I have shown I can assess situations and make difficult decisions and stick with them," she said, pointing out that she held her ground in heated battles over her various growth-control measures.
She added that "being deputy superintendent of schools is not comparable to running the county government, where you oversee police, fire, parks and recreation and public works. It is entirely different."
County budget officials said the largest increase in government spending during the Bobo administration had been in raising teachers' salaries and hiring 415 new teachers and aides at a cost of $34 million over the four years of her term.
Mr. Ecker said he thought the Bobo administration had let the bureaucracy spiral out of control. He promised that if elected he would trim government positions, mostly through attrition.
"She added 550 positions at a cost of $20 to $25 million," Mr. Ecker said. "That costs the taxpayers the equivalent of 44 cents on the property tax rate." However, Mr. Ecker said there was no guarantee he would be able to trim taxes, even with cuts in staff. If the economy continued to decline, he said, he might have to raise taxes or cut services.
Ms. Bobo backed away from questions about whether she would raise taxes, saying she didn't make predictions. That may be a vTC
result of her first campaign for executive, when she said the rate probably wouldn't go up more than a dime.
Her first budget, however, raised the tax rate 22 cents, restoring a cut made by her predecessor, J. Hugh Nichols. After that, she kept it at $2.49 per $100 of assessed value until the council trimmed four cents off the rate this year. Property tax bills, however, kept going up because of rising assessments.
While attention is now focused on finances, many think that managing the county's rapid development remains the critical issue.
"Growth still is a paramount issue because of the overcrowded schools, traffic congestion and the fact that office space in the county is 25 percent vacant. All are symptoms of growing too fast," said civic activist William Smith, a Democrat who lost in a primary bid for County Council.
Efforts to control growth have been the hallmark of Ms. Bobo's term. In pushing her proposals, she has shown an aggressiveness that belies the image of a cautious consensus-builder that she developed during nine years on the council.
She began with legislation to restrict development on steep slopes and require setbacks from streams, and she followed that with a bill that limits the county to 3,000 homebuilding permits during the 18-month period that ends March 31.
Ms. Bobo then pushed through a controversial General Plan for growth that calls for a greenbelt in the county's midsection, clustering homes in the west at a ratio of one for every five acres and building "mixed use" centers that combine residential and commercial development.
The plan envisions an average residential growth rate of 2,500 units a year over the next 10 years, a more moderate pace than the 4,000-plus units approved during the recent boom years.