Howard County Executive Chuck Ecker, who has spent a good deal of his first year plugging the fiscal leaks in the budget, deserves commendation for looking up from the balance sheets and looking ahead 20 years.
A study commissioned by Ecker, released this week, recognizes the long-term social problems that will arise from continued budget crunches, and proposes a new and invigorated role for the Office of Economic Development to meet them head-on. The plan is loosely called "Eckernomics."
It basically calls on local government to perform functions far beyond the scope of its traditional pothole-patching role -- to set up a venture-capital fund to attract new business, to support existing businesses, to ensure a stock of affordable housing, spur small business development, run employment and job-training programs and more. But as Ecker and most every other local official discovered almost immediately after taking office last November, it was the pursuit of "Reaganomics"
throughout the 1980s which threw many new mandates into the laps of states, and ultimately cities and counties, simply by cutting off the fiscal spigot.
Affordable housing offers one startling example. In 1980 there were 180,000 federally subsidized housing starts during the year. Ten years later, there were a paltry 20,000 -- and even that's up a little from the low point of the years when Ronald Reagan was giving the military everything it wanted and social needs the back of his hand.
So now the localities are left to take up the slack in housing, as they are doing in road and bridge repair, health care, feeding programs and a host of services too extensive to list individually.
The Ecker administration's economic development plan is designed to bring in the revenue the county will need to provide its citizens the quality of life they want. Yet its implementation unquestionably will also alter the coveted character of Howard County. Nonetheless, Eckernomics is the only plausible consequence of Reaganomics, and the alternative is implausible indeed.
That said, however, the most critical question still remains unanswered: How does a county -- strapped for money, which has had to cut back on programs and services already and is forced to threaten layoffs -- afford such a sweeping economic development program? Economic Development Director Dyan Brasington's answer -- that state and federal dollars will be available to help foot the bill -- is, to put it charitably, naive.