Faced with what he called "the worst economic condition I've seen in36 years," County Executive Charles I. Ecker stated yesterday his reluctant intention to raise taxes and lay off 200 government employees.
Ecker said dwindling revenue combined with fixed expenses for public education, the community college and debt service on county bonds have left him no choice.
The most the county can raise without "an inordinate" increase intaxes, Ecker said, is $262 million. The least the county can spend "and still guarantee the health, safety and welfare of citizens" is $275 million.
Just to get to the $262 million figure, the county will have to increase various builder and user fees as well as lay off workers, county Budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks said. The remaining $13 million needed to balance the budget must be raised another way.
Ecker has said that he will not make up the difference with property tax increases alone. If he did, it would mean a 26 cent rise in the present rate of $2.45 per $100 of assessed value. The owner of a home valued at $150,000 now pays about $1,500 in property taxes; the 26-cent increase would bring that to about $1,625 annually.
One way Ecker hopes to lessen the increase in property taxes is to obtaina legal ruling that would allow him to cut the school budget to the $140.5 million it received last year.
By law, the county cannot pay any less per pupil that it did the previous year. But with 1,300 new students, the county's contribution to the school budget would go up $5.2 million.
Ecker wants the formula changed so that "non-core"expenses, such as keeping schools open after hours for community programs, would not be included in the cost-per-pupil formula.
If theattorney general agrees, Ecker would most likely use the $5.2 million savings to reduce the needed property tax increase to 16 cents. If the attorney general does not agree, Ecker said he will explore the possibility of paying a fine for not adhering to the per-pupil spending formula. "If the penalty is $1 million, it's worth thinking about,"he said.
Ecker, who worked 15 years in the school system -- the last nine as deputy superintendent before his June 1989 retirement, said he is being called a traitor for attempting to hold the line on school spending.
"Everybody has to share in the reductions," he said. "I cannot reduce the county government (portion of the budget) by any more than 16 percent. I think it is unfair to ask 40 percent of the budget to stand 100 percent of the reductions."
Although the education portion includes a 6 percent raise for teachers that Ecker opposes, the county government portion of the budget has no raises of any kind -- no merit, no longevity, no cost-of-living. The county stillhas to negotiate contracts with its four municipal workers unions.
Ecker will conduct a public hearing March 6 on departmental requests. He said he has not had an opportunity yet to review the requests. "One thing is for sure," he said. "You will see changes in all of them -- up or down."
The following summarizes how various departmentsother than education and the community college say they would trim their requests by 16 percent to achieve a $15.9 million cut:
* Citizen services, $460,000 -- eliminate 6.7 positions, reduce nutrition sites to three days a week, decrease senior housing subsidies by six clients, reduce elderly community services.
* Cooperative extension, $39,840 -- change one position to part time and reduce operating expenses.
* Corrections, $683,310 -- eliminate 16 positions, two replacement vehicles.
* County administrator's office, $817,780 -- eliminate 15 positions and the county citizen's guide, reduce the rent relief program, the contribution to the County Arts Council and the county tourism and advertising programs.
* Fire and rescue services, $297,480 -- eliminate six positions in the central office.
* Health department, $611,690 -- eliminate 36 positions and reduce operating expenses.
* Police, $3,333,290 -- eliminate 55 positions, reduce the number of replacement vehicles and eliminate tuition reimbursement, clothing allowances and shift differential.