Ecker's Budget Magic Makes Deficit Shrink

April 03, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

The $102 million capital budget County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent to the County Council Monday is something of a fiscal magic act.

Cutting more than $18 million from the non-education part of the budget recommended by his department heads in January was no great sleight of hand. He simply postponed 27 projects for another year.

His financial wizardry lies in finding $3.4 million to help closea looming deficit in the operating budget.

Ecker found it in unspent pay-as-you-go money in the capital budget, and by substituting bond funding for other pay-as-you-go projects. Pay-as-you-go in government parlance means paying cash for capital projects rather than borrowing. Ecker wants to apply $2.25 million of the money to the current operating budget and $1.2 million to the fiscal 1992 budget.

This is the first time pay-as-you-go money has ever been "deappropriated and turned back into the operating budget," said budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks. It is essentially a matter of "robbing the capital budget and applying it to the operating fund."

But Wacks said the precedent was set by the previous administration, which took back authorization for some bonds after they exceeded recommended spending limits.

Other innovations in Ecker's budget are bond-financed installment purchases of equipment and land. Usually, bonds are used to make cash purchases.

Ecker wants to use bonds to finance the purchaseof $3 million worth of computer software. Wacks says the interest rate on the bonds would be cheaper than a regular five-year installmentpurchase using operating funds.

The County Council will have to amend the county code if Ecker is to acquire land on an installment plan, however. A bill to make that possible is now before the council.

Ecker's installment purchase idea is modeled after the county's highly successful farmland preservation program in which sellers receive twice-yearly payments of tax-free interest and a small amount of principal. Farmland sellers also receive a balloon payment of principal. Other property sellers under Ecker's proposal would not.

Becauseof impending adequate facilities legislation, the purchase of land for parks, libraries, health centers, senior centers, and police and fire stations will be a major capital budget emphasis for the remainder of his administration, Ecker told the council in his budget message.

Education and highway construction will be the other priorities growing out of the "adequate facilities imperative," Ecker said. He told the council that this and future capital budget allocations on average will be 40 percent for education, 33 percent for road construction and improvements, and 27 percent for land acquisition and other "critically needed public facilities."

Because of the bond limitation, $55 million this year, and what Wacks calls "the 800-pound gorilla on the horizon" -- the county's commitment to build two new high schools this decade -- Wacks said "it's going to be really difficult" to add branch libraries, build a new office building and create major new parks. "We'll be buying a lot of land -- not much else."

Despite committing the major portion of the budget to Board of Education requests, Ecker cut school construction funds by 10 percent and the overall Board of Education request by $6 million.

The council can restore, if it chooses, the money for education. With the remainder of the budget, it can only accept or cut what Ecker proposes.

The major expense in the highway portion of Ecker's budget is $8.7 million to "forward fund" construction of state roads.

The largest land expense Ecker proposed is $2.5 million to acquire about 14 acres for future development of community-based facilities in Elkridge.

His other major land purchase request is $2.2 million to acquire, design andrenovate an eight-acre site in Guilford Industrial Park. Already on the property are a 24,000 square-foot warehouse and several outbuildings with office space.

When completed, the renovated site will become a county-wide maintenance and service center for the recreation and parks department. Altogether the project will cost $4.6 million --$2.8 million was previously authorized.

Another key project in Ecker's proposal is $5.4 million to design, acquire and construct a yard waste composting facility. When completed, the facility should process about 26,000 tons of leaves, grass and brush a year. The facilityis needed, Ecker said, to enable the county to meet state recycling requirements.

Ecker said his capital budget also has aesthetic aims -- $500,000 to "alter and improve" Rockland School as a community arts center, and $200,000 to renovate historic Waverly Mansion near Marriottsville Road and Route 99.

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