County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he plans to limit the fiscal 1992 budget to $275 million -- $11 million less than this year -- and restrict an expected property tax increase to less than 26 cents.
An committee charged with giving Ecker spending guidelines for the coming fiscal year by Feb. 1 told him in a report released yesterday to expect no more than $262 million in revenues.
It was not a surprise.
For weeks now, Ecker has been predicting county revenues would be 10 percent less this fiscal year than last. And as early as Nov. 26 in a talk to senior citizens in Columbia, he was saying he "hoped 25 cents would be too high" for an expected tax increase.
The committee recommended that Ecker allow expenditures to exceed revenue expectations by $13 million because cutting expenditures to the $262 million level would "cripple the county's abilityto maintain basic public health, safety and education levels."
The committee had hoped the county would be able to make up the difference between expected revenues and expenditures by increasing certain fees. But the failure of the county's Annapolis delegation to allow the county to impose a 5 percent hotel tax --ed those hopes, said former state Sen. James Clark, the advisory committee chairman.
Clark had also suggested the county collect user fees for phone and electrical service. Ecker said he had no intention this year of asking the Annapolis delegation for permission to collect those fees because he thought getting it would be "much more difficult" than trying for the hotel tax.
That appears to leave increased property taxes as the county's only means of making up the difference. But the committee recommended Ecker increase property taxes "only as a last resort."
Ecker agreed, saying he would lay off employees or furlough them beforeraising property taxes above a level he deems unacceptable. He said 26 cents is unacceptable, but would not speculate further.
The current property tax rate, $2.45 per $100 of assessed value, is 1 cent above the average of the past 11 years and is one of the lowest in theregion. The highest the rate has ever been was $2.85 in 1971.
In order to keep the rate down, the advisory committee recommended that wages for all county employees, including teachers, be frozen for at least one year.
Teachers had negotiated a 6 percent raise, which Ecker would like them to surrender. He said that if county employees trust him now, he will reward them later, when the economy has recovered.
The committee told Ecker not to expect that to happen soon. "The economy in Howard County has not yet 'bottomed out' and the recovery will be slow," the committee said.
The committee's other recommendations echoed strategies previously unveiled by Ecker, such as requiring county agencies to "eliminate non-essential expenditures, reduce duplication" and submit budgets 10 percent less than this year's.
The county needs to "emphasize cost reduction by increasing productivity rather than cutting essential services," the committee told Ecker.
The fact that the committee's recommendations are nearly identical to Ecker's earlier pronouncements is not surprising given that such county officials as budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks, auditor Ronald S. Weinstein and administrator Buddy Roogow serve on the eight-member panel.
Ecker will submit his budget to the County Council in April.
Except for the education portion of the budget, the council can only accept or cut what Ecker presents them. With the education portion, it can restore any cuts the executive made in the Board of Education's request.