Ecker's dilemma

April 03, 1991

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.

To make matters worse, Ecker, his back to the wall, seems to have almost blindly embraced the maxim that what's best for business will be best for Howard County. This approach, together with appointees whose experience lies mostly in the private sector, has alienated the sizable constituency which fears that overdevelopment will erode Howard's coveted quality of life.

Ecker, for his part, is doing his level best. But the recession, the competing demands of his constituents and his own political inexperience are working against him. There is still time to pull it off, but for the man who enjoyed an astounding victory in November, the honeymoon is clearly over.

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