Nickel and Diming in Howard

November 22, 1991

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is trying hard to blunt the sting of a $14.5 million 1992 shortfall. If the county council approves his plan, 1,650 non-school county employees will be furloughed at a savings of about $1 million. Another 123 are being offered early retirement. Streets won't be cleaned. Trash pickup will be scaled back to once a week. Libraries will open an hour later and people will have to pay to park at the county's largest park. Forty of the 60 cars county workers take home are headed for the auction block. Even the thermostats in government buildings are being turned down a couple of degrees to save money.

This is the kind of thoughtful, nickel and dime cost-cutting needed to cope with continually contracting revenues. When the county's fiscal troubles began earlier this year, Mr. Ecker wouldn't hear of furloughs. He felt it was unfair to hit the pay of people who had already forfeited raises. Instead, 40 people were laid off.

Now he has been forced to try different tactics as the shortfalls continue to growth. Just last month, county officials were estimating a revenue gap of $9.5 million largely due to overly optimistic projections. Mr. Ecker has moved quickly to adapt. County bonds were recently refinanced at lower interest rates at a savings of $2 million this year. The county school system has agreed to return $3 million and a hiring freeze has saved the county another $1 million.

But the furlough plan, which Mr. Ecker is selling as a means of helping to avoid additional layoffs, has run into opposition from police and fire unions. "Quite frankly, I don't see how people can take any more cuts. We've suffered enough already," said Officer Dale Hill, president of the Howard County Police Association.

Yet Mr. Ecker says he doesn't see much community sentiment for balancing the budget by raising taxes. This means additional cost-cutting down the road and a slow deterioration in the services Howard counties are accustomed to receiving. The community's willingness to tolerate reduced services could be the determining factor in how Mr. Ecker goes about balancing Howard's budget over the next few years.

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