Wednesday night's hearing on budget cuts got so hot the fire alarm went off.
It was not enflamed testimony that generated the heat as much as an audience of over 1,000 that wanted by applause, hoots, whistles and jeers to send County Executive Charles I. Ecker a message.
Animosity was nearing a crescendo when the fire alarm sounded an hour and 17 minutes into the hearing. Half the audience exited and did not come back. The other half returned from the cold damp air in a seemingly kinder, gentler mood.
Ecker, who will hear from citizenson the budget again tomorrow night at Mount Hebron High School, saidafter Wednesday's hearing that the 62 people who testified raised "legitimate concerns.
"I am concerned too," he said. "I also have torepresent the silent people -- the people who don't want to raise taxes. They weren't here."
Wednesday, the message to Ecker before and after the alarm was the same: raise taxes whatever amount you have to, but don't lay off public safety employees and don't cut services -- especially those to the elderly, the poor and the disabled.
Jean Celano, wearing a paper plate that read "Please don't take lunchesfrom seniors," started things by telling Ecker she was "totally shocked" by a proposal to cut the county nutrition program from four to three meals a week.
That remark led people to stand up and applaud.When they finished, Ecker asked the audience to hold its applause until the end so he could hear from as many people as possible before an 11 p.m. cutoff.
"What else you gonna take from us?" one person yelled amid shouts and boos. It was only the beginning.
People stood and cheered and whistled as assistant state's attorney Jason Shapiro told Ecker that he loves his job and hopes to keep it for the rest of his life. But whether those feelings continue, Shapiro said, "depends on you and whether you're going to destroy our budget."
Shapiro wanted 30 seconds extra because of the applause. Ecker said no.
"If you destroy this budget," Shapiro continued, "for me, I'll move on to the private sector." But for the county, cutting the public safety budget will mean slower response times and reduced efficiency, he said.
"We'll be saying, 'Criminals -- Howard County is a place where you can come and prey on our citizens.' "
What will Ecker say to the children, parents, spouse of the police officer killed in the line of duty? Shapiro asked. What will he say to the rape victim? "If we don't continue with our budget here, we'll all be in trouble," he said.
Ecker started to reply. "Nothing has been cut yet," he said.
The 16 percent cuts department heads submitted for his consideration is merely a worst-case scenario -- indeed, he had said privately earlier in the week that he had no intention of cutting out meals forthe elderly.
The audience never heard him. The moment he said "nothing has been cut," he was booed and hooted down. "Come on Chuck!" one man yelled in disbelief.
"I don't expect your sympathy or understanding," Ecker said. "I do expect courtesy."
A Columbia man asked him, "How do you like to be called? Charlie?"
"Chuck," Ecker said.
"Well, Chuck, I'm concerned by what people are saying about you. . . drawing a pension from the public treasury, getting a $20,000 raise as county executive. . . ." "I hope you have friends because I can't imagine a Republican under the sun who would cut the police."
One proposal calls for Ecker to cut the police force by 41 officers. The police union has called for a citizen campaign against the cut.Officers who have personal use of their police cars formed a caravanof 41 squad cars and drove to the hearing as a protest.
When it came her turn, Columbia resident Marilyn Maitland received one of the biggest ovations of the night. She warned Ecker not to let politics get in the way of his ability to do the right thing. "Be the leading edge, not the bleeding edge," she told the executive.
After that, tensions ebbed. A less belligerent, continually thinning crowd returned after the 8:47 p.m. fire alarm. Their applause was more restrained,their hoots fewer.
The atmosphere had changed so much that a HighView Estates man told Ecker he agreed with Ecker's request that teachers surrender the 6 percent raise they had negotiated as part of a 3-year contract. "I'm confident none of our teachers will go hungry orlose houses" if they don't get a raise, Mac Whittemore said.
Whittemore, saying he represented the county's silent majority, said Ecker was being "more than fair," because unless the county gets on "a sound basis, you will see a tax revolt."