Budget blues: II

April 19, 1991

The image of angry teachers, locked in a work-to-rule protest, has become a fitting metaphor for Howard County, which has been badgered by the recession into an identity crisis. The county simply does not have enough money anymore to support the elaborate service system it provided routinely in recent years, and when Executive Chuck Ecker responded with a proposed budget this week, the social fallout became disturbingly palpable.

Facing a gaping $27 million revenue gap, Ecker, the consummate bottom-liner, laid off 40 employees, eliminated 119 vacant positions and denied raises to the remaining government workers. In addition, he cut spending in nearly every area, slashing the education budget to $3 million below current levels.

The county executive has, in essence, proposed a bare-essentials version of the service system for Howard -- the safety net is still intact, but it has no frills. And though the population is still growing, there will be no increase in services and virtually no flexibility to respond to emergencies. For Howard County, which has prided itself in being a leader in innovative government service, this will be a devastating blow all around -- but nowhere more than in education, which has been a major nTC selling point for the county, attracting both residential and business development.

The irony is that even the stripped-down Ecker budget still leaves a gap that has to be filled with fee increases and a 14-cent property tax hike. Moreover, if the economy doesn't bounce back soon, there undoubtedly will have to be another tax increase next year since it will be impossible to deny raises for a second time or cut back departmental budgets any further.

The real bottom line is that Howard Countians will be paying more for less. In a county that has one of the lowest tax rates in the region, the teachers' protest suggests that Ecker might have served his constituents better had he taken the longer view, and proposed a substantial enough, one-time tax increase to keep the level of services and the county's coveted identity intact.

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