Considering the sentiments expressed by residents at a public hearing last night, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker may have the backing he needs to impose a tax increase to keep from cutting county jobs and services.
At Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City, residents and county employees wore signs on lapels and blouses urging Ecker to "Keep Our Police Services." Banners were unfurled imploring him to "Save Our Seniors Programs." And signs were hoisted beseeching the executive to protect several other programs.
More than 1,000 people packed the school's auditorium, and nearly all of them urged Ecker to continue funding various services and programs as the county struggles to come up with a balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The key question Ecker is seeking to answer is whether residents are willing to accept higher taxes to avoid deep cuts in services. Only one of the first 50 speakers even suggested that ** Ecker focus on holding taxes at the current level to make up a projected $31 million shortfall.
"You ask me whether I want to pay higher taxes?" said John Maitland of Columbia. "I want the services. I'll pay for them. . . . Whatever it costs to do the job."
Steve Lee, a Howard resident who said he pays $12,000 a year in property taxes, suggested that the 16 percent cut in each county department budget that Ecker has sought would go beyond bureaucratic fat, "through the muscle and right to the bone."
"The people of Howard County would rather pay more than lose the level of services we all deserve," Lee said to loud applause. "Why are we considering such draconian measures in one of the richest counties in the country?"
Many elderly residents expressed fears that budget cuts would leave them without a variety of programs and services that some said have renewed their lives. They voiced concerned about a proposal to reduce the number of hot meals for the elderly at senior citizen centers from five a week to three.
Jessica Rowe, a member of the executive committee of the Howard County Commission on Aging, said programs for senior citizens provide the only source of good nutrition for some
elderly residents and prevent them from being isolated and depressed. She urged Ecker not to cut those services.
"We are not talking about frills and fluff," Rowe said. "All of us grow old. We are talking about the fastest-growing segment of the Howard County community, and all are at risk."
Mac Whittemore of Ellicott City was the only speaker to urge cuts. He said teachers should forfeit their 6 percent raises and save the county $8.5 million. There were scattered boos and hisses when he told Ecker, "You are being more than fair."
"You are absolutely correct when you say there would be a tax revolt [if taxes are raised], and I guarantee that," Whittemore said.
But Rosemary Mortimer, president of the Howard County PTA Council, said she is discouraged that School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has had to reduce his budget request by $12 million.
"There is a limit to what citizens can accept," Mortimer said.
Other speakers urged continued support of Howard Community College, the public library system and programs that help the mentally ill and disabled.
David Wade, 47, a disabled Columbia resident, said he appreciates county programs that help him care for his 82-year-old mother at home.
There was strong support for police, who went to the hearing in a convoy of 41 police cars, who face a proposed layoff of 38 officers. Also, three vacant positions would not be filled under the department's effort to cut its budget by 16 percent.
Jason Shapiro, an assistant county state's attorney, admitted he was concerned about losing his job. He said he was worried that cuts would make it more difficult for prosecutors to gain convictions and that laying off police officers would be dangerous.
"Basically, what that says to criminals is Howard County is a place for you to come and prey on citizens," Shapiro said.
Robert B. Kliesmet, president of the International Union of Police Associations, agreed, saying cuts in police services could cause drug markets in nearby Washington and Prince George's County and surging crime in Baltimore and Baltimore County to expand to Howard.
"The criminal elements may decide that this is a safer place to do business than any of those locations," Kliesmet said.
Fewer than half the residents who signed up to speak got an opportunity to address Ecker. Another hearing is scheduled Monday.