Tax and bend

November 28, 1990

There is a great and painful irony rippling through Howard County; Chuck Ecker -- who ran for county executive bashing the tax-and-spenders and touting fiscal responsibility -- may find that one of his first official acts is to recommend a tax increase.

In fairness, it must be said that Ecker is stuck between a rock and hard place. Throughout his campaign, the county's projected deficit was $5 million; this week it hit a staggering $17 to $18 million. It doesn't take an accountant to recognize that Howard County is going to need more revenue to continue to provide the quality services residents have come to expect. But it is pure partisan banter to point an accusing finger at Liz Bobo, as newly elected councilman Darrel Drown has done. There isn't a county around that isn't feeling precisely the same fiscal squeeze. Most of the problem has nothing whatever to do with local government.

A good part of the problem is the devastating delayed impact of Reaganomics, which gave the states less federal help but asked them to do more -- and forced the states, in turn, to dump mandate after mandate on local government, sans money. Howard, with a rich and expanding tax base, managed to avoid that particular fiscal mire longer than Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties, where wrathful taxpayers nearly hamstrung county government. But not so the national economic downturn; 65 percent of Howard County's operating budget comes from property taxes and the piggy back tax (the local share of state income tax revenue), both of which have been hard hit by recession.

Ecker's campaign promises of simple austerity won't bridge the gap. Howard, and Ecker, are fortunate, though; the county's $2.45 tax rate is relatively low, and a moderate increase is feasible. The biggest problem is that the nascent Ecker administration probably will have to swallow it, along with a bit of political pride.

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