'R' Word in Howard

January 11, 1991

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is wasting no time spelling out in hard, practical terms what the "R" word means for residents and employees in his affluent subdivision. Proclaiming a "fiscal emergency," the new executive says remedying a $17.6 million revenue shortfall may call for higher taxes, lower school spending, deep-sixing pay increases or county employees and perhaps even furloughs. These and other measures, including less frequent trash pickup and new user fees, will be painful, but necessary, adjustments.

Mr. Ecker and the Howard County Council face the daunting task of ratcheting down spending at least 6 percent to suture a $17.6 million revenue gap this year and a projected gap of $16 million in fiscal 1992. Like other suburban counterparts, Mr. Ecker has discovered that the usual budgetary moves -- freezing spending, purchases and unfilled positions -- may not be enough.

With the recession dimming prospects for increased real estate and income tax receipts, county budgeteers say they will be lucky to collect $253.9 million next year. That's figuring a 6 percent drop in current spending levels. To close the gap, Mr. Ecker is considering a raft of politically unsavory options, including boosting Howard's $2.45 tax rate, scaling back trash collections to once a week, imposing a 5 percent hotel-motel tax and fees on dumping and recreational programs. He also may press to change local laws mandating merit and longevity pay hikes.

Mr. Ecker is not going to win any popularity contests. Already, various factions are lobbying for exemptions from the budget freeze. School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has proposed an 11.8 percent spending increase amounting to $157.5 million. This includes an already negotiated 6 percent pay hike for 2,300 teachers and staffers.

An early test of Mr. Ecker's abilities will be his success in convincing labor leaders that the county's plight is severe and their options limited. Freezing salaries -- yes, even in the face of escalating prices -- is far more palatable than unemployment, which has the added effect of making a weak economy even weaker.

This is the point where the reality of the recession begins to strike people intimately -- where they live and work. Mr. Ecker faces a tough road ahead as do union leaders and county council members. Critics say the new executive is merely priming the pump for a property tax increase. Perhaps. Yet facing fiscal realities swiftly and squarely is what leadership during tough times is all about. Others would do well to follow his lead.

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.