Fiscal Patchwork in Howard

April 17, 1991

Few surprises emerge from Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker's 1992 budget of $270.3 million that he released yesterday: Education takes a big hit and there are no raises for teachers, police and other government workers. The layoffs and tax hike Mr. Ecker previously had alluded to proved less wrenching than anticipated. Only 40 county workers lose their jobs and the executive is recommending a property tax rise of 14 cents, far less than the 26 cents bandied about earlier. Mr. Ecker characterized his first budget as "meeting the needs of our citizens. . . while at the same time dealing with the realities of our fiscal situation."

Yet the spending blueprint headed for the county council seems out of kilter with the character of the region's fastest-growing subdivision. For the first time in memory, spending on education -- a county priority -- will decrease from prior-year levels, requiring deep and painful program cuts. Forty county employees representing $1.5 million a year -- 3 cents on the tax rate -- have been laid off in a token gesture reflecting not so much dire economic necessity as Mr. Ecker's belief that county government needed downsizing. Yet even with the 14-cent rise in property taxes, Howard's rate of $2.59 will be among the region's lowest.

Mr. Ecker says his budget has "made just about everyone angry," but hews to the belief he was elected to cut spending and hold down taxes. He may be no closer to putting his finger on the county's pulse than was his predecessor, Elizabeth Bobo. In cutting education, raising taxes and withholding raises, Mr. Ecker has won few friends. And next year, the situation could worsen when the county is faced with employee contracts, expanding school enrollment and urgent capital needs.

Undeniably, Howard is in a tight spot this year with a projected 1992 shortfall of $27 million. We agree with some of the executive's policy decisions, particularly holding the line on salary increases. Harder to fathom is the need to lay off 40 workers to save what amounts to budget pocket change.

Mr. Ecker makes much of preparing for the future by reducing the "budgeted base" of government, one of his recurring themes. Yet a $1.5 million a year cut in salaries hardly achieves this goal. This appears to be more of a budget patchwork guided by partisan ideology and the perceived anti-tax mood of voters than any real understanding of what makes Howard County tick.

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