Critics say Chuck Ecker is in over his head. And he very well could be. The Howard County executive, who has no political experience, admits he is politically naive, a quality that came more sharply into public focus almost immediately when Ecker -- who was elected on wave of anti-tax, cut-the-fat sentiment -- discovered the county was facing a $20 million deficit. To make a bad situation even worse, revenue for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is expected to be down an additional $24 million.
In such situations there are but two options -- cut service or raise taxes. But in Howard's case, neither choice was politically palatable: Keeping the budget for next year the same as this year would have required a whopping 62-cents property tax increase; keeping the tax rate stable would have meant massive cuts in service and personnel. Add to the fiscal conundrum a unique but important social component -- Howard Countians view their community as one which offers and values superior levels of services across the board -- and even a seasoned politician would have been hard pressed to craft a workable agenda. Ecker, who seems long on pragmatism and a bit short on the vision thing, has struggled to find a middle ground. He proposes some service cuts and a moderate property tax increase, a plan which, overall, seems neither to please those who take pride in the county's unparalleled services, nor those who hunkered down in the last election against big government.