Howard County is going a little ballistic, which is understandable. Just months ago, Howard was the green ghetto of the state -- with so much money it could even afford to clamp down on growth. Now comes the revelation that Howard is not immune to the economic vagaries that beset other jurisdictions. Growth, it turns out, slowed on its own, and the national economic downtown will produce a deficit of nearly $18 million.
Ironically, the County Council reacted by approving a 5 percent assessment tax cap. Cutting off a critical revenue source in the face of a deficit obviously doesn't make a lot of fiscal sense, but it at least offers the perception of fiscal restraint. In reality, of course, everyone knows the assessment cap is no tax relief measure: making up the $1.2 million the cap will cost can be done simply by increasing the tax rate 2.5 cents, which is the next likely move. The $2.45 rate may in fact go up even higher if leadership is forced to chose between that course or cutting the county's widely coveted services.
Executive Chuck Ecker has insisted from the start that capping assessments and increasing the tax rate was a better way to govern, because it makes officials directly accountable to the public. More stringent measures may be needed in Howard as well, like the across-the-board hiring freeze imposed by Anne Arundel Executive Bob Neall, and certainly some belt-tightening in every department. Ecker, no doubt, will have an easier time pushing such measures than his predecessor would have; the current fiscal malaise clearly has changed expectations in terms of budget and taxes. But in Howard, where revenue shortfalls have always been someone else's problem, the hard choices will not come easily.