After County Executive Charles I. Ecker shared the bad news about the county's economic climate at his budget hearing Thursday night, you would have thought he was Chicken Little.
The more than 150 people in the audience either didn't really believe things are as bad as he says -- the county may have to borrow money this year to make ends meet and will have to raise taxes next year just to hold the line on the current budget -- or they chose to ignore Ecker's warnings.
From the first of the approximately 50 speakers to the last, the message was the same: "Make no cuts in our request. If anything, increase it."
What they want the county to provide next year, they told Ecker, is more affordable housing, a comprehensive transportation plan, day care, child abuse protection, opportunities for the disabled, maternity care for indigent women, money for victims of drug abuse, day programs for retarded people, respite care for the handicapped, and money for the sexual assault center.
And that's just the beginning.
People in Savage want money for their new combination health center and library. They also want money to preserve one of their historic properties.
People in east Columbia and Elkridge want Ecker to go forward with plans for their new libraries.
Students at Howard Community College say they can't afford an increase in tuition and want the county to make up what the state is cutting. The public school system doesn't want to get short-changed either; Ecker was asked to fully subsidize its new operating budget. That budget will be unveiled Friday.
The Columbia Association asked Ecker to continue subsidies for ColumBus and a pathway around Lake Kittamaqundi. There is "no more appropriate way for the county and CA to work together" than to complete the pathway by Columbia's 25th birthday, Ecker was told.
Sidewalks are what people along Northfield Road want. Those living in the Route 1/I-95 corridor asked Ecker to proceed with the county's plans for a golf course there, saying it would attract business and help the local economy.
Parents and youth workers told Ecker to provide more soccer fields, playgrounds and money for athletic programs. One man pledged "financial assistance, manpower and insurance" if the county would build a model air park.
Money was also requested to preserve the ruins at Patapsco Female Institute and Whipp Cemetery and to acquire natural wetlands in the Little Patuxent valley.
No one offered advice on how Ecker should go about financing the requests. Neither was he offered advice as to what the maximum tax rate should be. It is currently $2.45 per $100 of property valuation.
Ecker has said that an increase of 50 cents would be too high, but has not ruled out a 25-cent hike, saying only, "I hope it wouldn't be that much."
"The numbers coming at us now are scary, scary numbers," Councilman Darrel E. Drown told a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Friday.
Drown, who was budget officer for the school system prior to his election to the council in November, told the chamber, "There is a potential for a tax increase that can take our breaths away. We're not Congress. We have to balance our budget."
Despite the demands for what little is left in the county's nearly bare cupboard, Ecker called Thursday night's hearing "very valuable," saying it gave him "a better insight" into the county's needs and would help him develop priorities.
There was very little not to like in what people asked for, he said. "It was all motherhood and apple pie."
Ecker has said that he hopes to be able to continue to subsidize the county's essential services without laying anyone off.
"In a time of economic slowdown, some services are even more important than boom times," Ecker said. "You have more unemployed and you need more social services."
Ecker said he doesn't know whether the county has the resolve to accept the tax increase necessary to keep services at the same level as in this year's budget. "Sometimes, a couple of people (council members) -- perhaps even a majority of residents -- feel taxes are high enough."
Thursday, Ecker was merely getting advice. The real skirmish will come in March when he conducts a hearing on the budget he intends to submit to the council. Then, everyone will know exactly what cuts he has made and how much he intends to increase taxes.
The fighting will then begin in earnest. On Thursday, Ecker got a feel for what the battle may look like when some residents suggested that Ecker pare his budget by deleting all projects they want kept out of their neighborhood.
Drown referred to such people in his chamber talk Tuesday as "barbed wire yuppies" -- those who, once they move in, put up barbed wire around their neighborhood. They "are out there in spades," Drown said.
With the exception of the education portion of the budget, the council can only approve or delete line items from Ecker's budget. It cannot add to it. The council can, however, restore any cuts Ecker makes to the education portion of the budget.