County recreation and parks users will find some costly surprises inthe $270 million proposed operating budget unveiled yesterday by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
Programs once underwritten by the operating budget will become self-sustaining and see "significant increases," said parks Director Jeffrey A. Bourne.
The popular summer playground program, for example, cost $85 to $90 last year. This year it will cost about $150, he said. Field fees will increase by 50 cents per game per participant.
Some of the increases have been applied to spring sports. Others will take effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Because many recreation programs will become self-supporting, fewer scholarships may be available to low-income participants, Bourne said.
"Our goal is to make the effect as invisible as humanly possible," he said.
It won't be an easy task. The Parks and Recreation Department has the smallest dollar amount -- $4.9 million -- in Ecker's budget, but the largest percentage decrease -- 18 percent -- over the previous year.
As predicted, Ecker cut from his budget the $8.9 million raise negotiated by school employees, laid off 40 government workers and increased property taxes 5.7 percent to $2.59 per $100 of assessed value.
Ecker will present his budget to the council Monday night. The council will begin public hearings the next evening. The council is expected to voteon the budget and set the tax rate May 23.
If the council approves the 14-cent property tax increase, the owner of a $150,000 house would pay $165 more this year than last.
For Republican Darrel Drown, R-2nd, the 14-cent increase is too much. Drown, a former school budget officer, said he would look to trim even more from the county budget "although it's going to be tough to find something."
Drown and fellow Republican Charles C. Feaga, of the 5th District, said they will follow Ecker and not vote to restore the $8.9 million raise negotiated by school system employees.
Excepting the education portionof the budget, the council can only cut or accept what Ecker proposes. It can not make additions, though it can ask Ecker to reconsider and offer additions. With the education portion, it can restore any cuts he makes.
Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, calling herself "a realist," said she would like to restore the teachers' raise to the budget but doubted she would be able to, given the county's economic crisis.
"My two children give me daily firsthand experiencesabout the kind of dedicated teachers we have in the county," she said. "I wish some kind of agreement could have been reached" between the administration and the teachers union.
Teachers are protesting Ecker's cuts this week with a letter-writing campaign and a work-to-contract job action that is scheduled to start today. Because the budget remains unofficial until the council votes to accept it, no legal action against the county is imminent.
"The harm is in not honoring a negotiated agreement," Pendergrass said. "Our teachers do all kinds of things to make our schools really special. They are going to feel underappreciated and underpaid."
Those are exactly the feelingsmany of the county's 1,700 non-education employees have been expressing for the past several months, having faced layoffs, furloughs and no raises.
Asked about low employee morale, Ecker said it should go "up a bit" now that the people remaining know they are not going tobe laid off. He said his "open door" policy, in which employees can meet with him privately, will "over time, hopefully" restore employeetrust in the administration.
Ecker said his budget "made a lot ofenemies" inside and outside of county government. He said he would have needed a 53-cent increase to produce the same amount of revenue as this year, and another 25 cents beyond that if no one was laid off and everyone received raises -- cost of living, longevity and merit.
His budget objectives, he said, were three: Reduce the size of government, keep the tax increase as low as possible and make county government "recession-proof."
His budget priorities, he said, were four: education; safety; waste management and recycling; and fiscal responsibility -- not eliminating basic services. "I tried to cut overhead, not services," he said.
"It is a responsive and responsible budget," he said yesterday. "Not very pleasant in the short term," but sound in the long term.
When asked why he laid off 40 employees when for 3 cents more on the tax rate he could have kept everyone on the payroll, Ecker said, "Where do you stop raising taxes? I'm concerned (about) a tax revolt similar to other counties'."
Ecker said he preferred not to freeze wages, but many county taxpayers could not afford to pay more than the 14-cent increase he is asking.
"I'm not doing this for a popularity contest," he said, "I'm doing this for the future. If I cared about (re-election), there would be no tax increase. If I was concerned about votes, I would have cut the budget backanother $5 million."
Ecker said he hopes to raise employee salaries next year -- even though he said he expects the economic recovery to be slow. He said the recession hit Howard harder than neighboring ones because it had started the year with a $24 million surplus and because state income tax revenues had declined.
Drown had another explanation. "You have to look at the budgeting assumptions of previous administrations," he said. "You get clobbered with rosy assumptions."