Ecker Budget Would Cut Everything But Human Services

Increase In Aidpegged At 5 Percent

January 09, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Outlining his plans for coping with what he calls the county's "fiscal emergency," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday the one thing that would have to be increased in the budget is grants in aid to human services.

Those services become crucial in hard economic times, Ecker said, and he is looking to provide a 5 percent increase, amounting to $125,000.

Everywhere else, Ecker said he will be looking to make cuts. He has told the Board of Education, Howard Community College and the public library not to expect any more money this year than last, and has warned them that they may be subject to the same 10 percent cuts he has told every other department to make.

The single exception is grants in aid to human services. The various organizations seeking grants have been told to limit their requests for increases to 10 percent.

However, if one organization asks for the full 10 percent, another will have to be cut an equal amount, because the overall increase can be no more than 5 percent.

The Association of Community Services today will conduct what executive director Sheila Ray calls a four-hour "brainstorming" session to plan strategies for helping member organizations get through the next 18 months or more.

"We've had such good esprit de corps over the past few years, we don't want to getturfy now," Ray said.

Although the county easily weathered the economic turndown of 1981, "nothing like this has ever been seen before," Ray said. "The numbers of homeless will go up and agencies (of allkinds) will have more clients. Many are not sure the 5 percent increase will be enough to help them."

The county is going to have to "prioritize" which services are most needed, Ray said.

"How do you do that? How do you decide whether health or food, or housing or transportation is more important?"

Association president Jane Walker says all the member agencies are committed to improving services despite the pinch. One of the things members will be looking at today willbe how to share staff members, she said.

"We want to get residents to support the services vital to our community," by volunteering, making contributions or both, she said.

In a recession, the people who had previously paid for services but now cannot afford them pose the greatest demands, she said. Someone recently unemployed may need help with rent, groceries, mental health or medical services, she said. "There's a ripple effect through the whole human service network."

Walker said human services are "hit on all sides" by a recession because not only does the government cut back, but so do businesses and individuals. Grant money and contributions drop while demands increase.

County citizen services director Manus J. O'Donnell said he hopes services can be preserved by shuffling money from one organization to another as needed. "We have to be flexible in these times and expand the vision of services provided," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnellremembers the 1981 recession as a time when then-county executive J.Hugh Nichols challenged the community to come up with $100,000 for human services, and the community responded by raising $165,000 in money and services.

"Maybe the community can come up with something equally as good this time," he said. "For individual people, it will be very, very difficult, however. It's one thing to read that the county unemployment rate has doubled from 2 to 4 percent. It's another thing to be 100 percent unemployed."

County budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks said there is no comparison between the current recession and the one in 1981. Then, revenues slowed, but didn't decline, hesaid. Also, "the federal government pumped defense dollars into the local economy. The growth pressures were less and Howard County hardly noticed," Wacks said.

The prognosis this time had been for a "soft touchdown," Wacks said. He said the savings and loan crisis also has adversely affected the local economy, because projects that were once considered routine are now marginal and not getting financed.

County Council members said that while they plan to examine the specifics of Ecker's austerity program, they think painful sacrifices are necessary.

Darrel Drown, R-2nd, said Ecker's plan to cut spending and raise taxes at the same time is both prudent and necessary, although he believes a 22 cent tax hike -- the level former executive M. Elizabeth Bobo raised taxes her first term -- would be too much.

Any tax increase is too much for Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, although he agrees the county is in "grave economic condition." Gray said he hoped Ecker would not, as he indicated he might, rule out every type of employee raise possible. Gray said he thinks cost of living increases may be possible.

Ecker apparently had better successconvincing union presidents of the need to hold the line on salaries. The presidents of the police and fire unions said after meeting with Ecker that they "understand" the county's need to eliminate raises.The union chiefs said they would be looking instead for non-monetarybenefits when conducting this year's negotiations.

The county is due to begin union negotiations in two weeks. All four employee unions -- police, fire, corrections and blue collar -- are negotiating newcontracts this year.


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