Howard County is either a fiscally sound and prosperous county where growth is managed effectively or a county victimized by runaway government spending and a poor infrastructure, according to the two candidates who want to lead the county for the next four years.
Those sharply different views emerged last night as Democrat Elizabeth Bobo, the incumbent county executive, and Republican Charles I. Ecker, the challenger, argued growth and the economy during a debate at Howard High School.
Ecker said the Bobo administration has allowed the county to grow too fast in recent years without making sure there is enough money to pay for new roads, schools and other necessary public facilities. He said she has spent too much money along the way to expand the county government.
And now, he said, an expected shortfall in government revenue will aggravate the problem. The county administration has ordered department heads to trim spending by 5 to 10 percent this year in light of an expected $5 million shortfall in the current $286.4 million budget.
"We've got a lot of catching up to do," Ecker said, referring to what he called a lack of adequate roads. "I think our executive has been spending our prosperity rather than managing it."
Bobo said her administration has spent on schools a large portion of its 88 percent budget increase over the last four years. Part of the increase paid for the more than 200 percent increase in teachers' salaries and added 98 officers to the police department, she said.
She contended that the county has kept up with growth. "I don't agree we're lacking infrastructure," Bobo said. "Every school-construction request that was made has been funded."
Ecker countered that motorists face congestion on several major roadways.
Ecker said Bobo's measures to control growth have made businesses feel that Howard County has an "anti-business climate." He said the housing industry is suffering from her cap on building permits, which, along with the slumping economy, has slowed construction to a trickle.
Bobo said the economic downturn went beyond Howard County. She argued that the county still has attracted and held onto a number of high-tech and bio-tech firms, and she criticized Ecker for his assessment of the business climate.
"Those who say Howard County has an anti-business climate will create a self-fulfilling prophecy," she said.
The debate was sponsored by the Howard County Economic Forum and the Coalition of Community Associations.