Facing Reality in Howard

November 30, 1990

Howard County executive-elect Charles I. Ecker has ruffled more than a few feathers by suggesting the unspeakable: the possibility of a tax increase or layoffs if the county's fiscal health continues to deteriorate. Critics argue that such talk is both premature and irresponsible and sends the wrong message to county employees. We disagree. It sends exactly the right message: The boom in Howard has vanished. Like many Maryland subdivisions, Howard finds itself facing the morning after. Growth, the dominant issue for much of a decade, is now overshadowed by the need to maintain services in a time of faltering revenue.

At this point, Howard has an estimated revenue gap of $15 million to $18 million in its $286.4 million budget. Income taxes are expected to come in $7 million below projections and income from transfer taxes and recordation fees have plunged.

Outgoing County Executive Elizabeth Bobo took preliminary steps to lop current spending by 5 percent to 10 percent. The reality, however, is that these measures may not be enough. Mr. Ecker doesn't officially take the helm in Howard until Monday, but he is already tackling the unpalatable chore of preparing county residents for tough times ahead. "I don't want to lay anyone off or raise taxes," he said. "But it may eventually become necessary." The key word is eventually. Even Mr. Ecker's harshest critics agree that barring a significant uptick in the county's economic fortunes, fiscal 1992 could bring far more serious budget woes. As it is, Howard must find a way to close its existing budget gap by the close of the fiscal year next June 30.

Still, Mr. Ecker has reassured county employees that layoffs are not currently under consideration. Higher taxes, given Howard's relatively low property tax rate of $2.45 and the lack of revolt sentiment, may be another matter.

Before these options are considered, however, Mr. Ecker says there will be a raft of belt-tightening measures, including a freeze on hiring, travel, equipment purchases and the like. Other options include departmental consolidations and delayed equipment purchases. He has even scrapped his pet goal of elevating economic development to a departmental level on the grounds that "the county simply can't afford it right now."

Mr. Ecker's forthright approach to Howard's budget situation is a sensible, responsible way to deal with austere times. A pledge to give Howard an open, accessible government was a central theme in Mr. Ecker's campaign. He should be applauded, not criticized for telling it like it is.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.