Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey proudly informed County Executive Charles I. Ecker last week that he planned to submit a budget with the smallest increase in four years.
"What do you mean increase?," replied Ecker.
The new county executive's sense of humor is already becoming legend in Howard County government, but he wasn't wholly joking. And that could mean problems for the $200.8 million budget that Hickey proposed Friday that calls for an 11.8 percent spending increase over the current budget.
An aide to Ecker said the executive is serious about asking the school system, the public library and county agencies to spend less in next year's budget as the county grapples with a projected $20 million revenue shortfall.
Ecker assistant Beverly Wilhide said the administration is asking all departments and agencies to submit reduced spending proposals for fiscal 1992 because it anticipates more budget problems next year. Those problems are inevitable, budget officials say, because the county will have no surplus to factor into the next budget. It is spending last year's $24 million carry-over.
Under Hickey's proposal, Howard County would provide $157.5 million of the school system's budget, an increase of 12.1 percent in its share of the burden. The state would provide most of the other school costs.
The plan represents a $21.2 million increase over the current $179.6 million budget. Of that amount, $11.4 million is necessary to accommodate growth without cutting services or programs, Hickey said. The current budget is 15.2 percent higher than last year's.
"That the smallest amount of increase I've requested in the last four years," he said. "We made a conscious decision to do that."
Hickey said earlier this month that he would need an increase of 15 percent in next year's budget to maintain the current level of services, but said he was able to reduce the increase because enrollment projections are lower and administrators held down other costs.
Schools spokeswoman Patti Vierkant added that the system may be able to give back $2 million to the county from the current budget because of cuts it is making.
But Hickey said the 1992 budget could grow by $750,000 when a contract is settled with secretarial and clerical workers, if they get a salary increase in the 5 to 6 percent range. Their contract expires June 1.
The school system, one of the fastest growing in Maryland, expects to have 31,371 students, an increase of about 1,100 over this year, when two new schools open next September.
The budget proposal calls for the addition of 135 positions, including 50 new teachers, and the inclusion of another classroom period in county high schools.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Jan. 22 and the school board is to vote on the plan in February before submitting it to the county executive and council.