The dilemma facing County Executive Charles I. Ecker was aptly summed up Monday by the next to last speaker at the second night of budgethearings at Mount Hebron High School:
"What level of services do people want? And are people prepared to pay that level?"
Builder Al Trellis told Ecker those questions are the real issue behind the "cheap shots" Ecker has been taking during the hearings: shots at his $80,000 annual salary, his $30,000 in disputed school system pension benefits and his hiring of three aides at salaries of $80,000, $60,000 and $41,000.
Ecker says that because of the recession, he must come up with $32 million in budget cuts, property tax increases or some combination of the two just to match the services in last year's $286 million budget.
If the difference were made up in property taxes alone, 64 cents would have to be added to the property tax rate of $2.45 per $100 of assessed value.
A $3.09 rate, which Ecker has said is out of the question, would mean that the owner of a$150,000 house would pay about $1,900 in property taxes, an increaseof about $400 a year.
In testimony both nights, most people said they would accept tax increases of $300 to $400 a year "to maintain the quality of life."
Ecker has said, however, he will not hike property taxes more than 25 cents.
More than likely, the maximum increase will be 22 cents -- the amount Ecker's predecessor raised taxes her first year in office.
Even with that, Ecker still must raise at least $5 million from assorted builder and user fees, and make cutsof $16 million in personnel and programs to balance the budget.
If Ecker gave everyone everything they asked for in the two nights of testimony, he would restore to the budget $7 million of the $16 million in cuts his department heads recommended.
The restoration wouldprevent employees from being laid off or furloughed. It would allow the county to maintain most of its present services. It would also add another 14 cents to the property tax rate.
Ecker says he wants to minimize any property tax increase to avoid a tax revolt.
Trellis told Ecker "the fear of a tax revolt is not real" because county residents know "there is no free lunch" and because property taxes hereare already low.
People like the life the county offers -- its schools, its police and fire protection, its recreational programs, andits services to diverse populations -- and are willing to pay for it, Trellis said.
Politicians are "afraid to go to the people and say, 'If this is what you want, pay for it,'" Trellis said, although heand 102 other speakers urged Ecker to have the "courage" to do just that.
Only one, Mac Whittemore of High View Estates, told Ecker otherwise. Whittemore, saying he represented the county's "silent majority," warned Ecker he would indeed face a tax revolt if property taxes are too high.
Almost everyone else told Ecker: If you need to raise taxes or increase fees to pay for program, do it.
Last week, speaker after speaker told Ecker to restore programs his citizen services and public safety department heads recommended cutting as part ofa 16 percent reduction.
Monday, supporters and employees of the Corrections, Public Works and Recreation and Parks departments had their turn.
Cutting 14 positions from the Department of Corrections to save $525,000 could lead to prison control problems that the countyhas been spared up to now, employees told Ecker.
Remaining workers would become more vulnerable to attack, they said.
Public Works employees in the Bureau of Highways told Ecker they already have one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in the country. For him to discontinue street sweeping, road maintenance, and storm water management would be a "foolish waste," they said.
As for the Recreation and Parks Department, parent after parent told Ecker that the county's recreational and environmental protection programs for the young, elderly and the disabled are essential.
They urged Ecker to increase user fees for specific programs and to spend $210,000 to keep the staff at its current level.
Ecker must now put together his budget for presentation to the council next month. With the exception of the education portion of the budget, the council can only approve or cut the proposal. It can restore cuts Ecker makes to the school system budget, but cannot increase it.