County Executive Charles I. Ecker began his fiscal 1993 budget hearing last week by asking the 46 people in the audience to give him their "honest assessment of programs the county can no longer afford to provide."
"We are pretty close to a depression if not already there," he said, "and we want to come through with our quality of life still intact."
The way to do that, several speakers told Ecker, is to keep the budget at this year's level or better the programs the county has now.The way to do that, they said is to raise taxes -- something Ecker said later he hopes he will not have to do, "but can't say point-blankI am not going to do."
"Nobody likes the big T word, but someone is going to have to step up" and propose a tax increase, David Brunson of Mount Airy told Ecker. "If it means a better place, let's get itover with and increase taxes a little bit."
A little bit won't beenough, Ecker said. Not only is the fiscal 1992 budget $30 million below the fiscal 1991 budget, but the county is facing another $8.2 million in state aid cuts announced by the governor last week.
Eckersaid that although he does not expect the state legislature to approve those cuts when it meets next month, more cuts may be coming in February.
If the cuts are imposed, at least $4.5 million would have to come from the education portion of the budget, because the county has only $2.5 million in state aid left, Ecker said. The remaining state aid cuts would have to come from the library and Howard CommunityCollege.
To make up just the $30 million difference between this year and last, the county would have to raise property taxes 60 cents, Ecker said. He raised property taxes 14 cents last year and still had to eliminate raises, lay off 40 workers and cut services by 12 percent to balance an austere budget.
After listening to Ecker's lament, Clarksville resident Bruce Eberle said he would be willing to support a modest increase in the tax rate to aid the library, the schools and social services agencies. "But I'm not sure about 60 cents," hesaid.
The dilemma facing Ecker is that property tax is the only revenue source over which he has total control. Property taxes and thecounty portion of the state income tax together make up 80 percent of county revenues. At $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, the county's property tax rate is fourth highest in the state. If it were increased 60 cents, it would be the highest except for Baltimore's.
Peopleurging a tax increase argue that property tax comparisons are misleading. Montgomery County, for example, has a lower property tax rate but taxes things that Howard does not, such as energy and telephone usage.
Ecker says those taxes are regressive and has not asked for them. He did ask the legislature last year for permission to impose a 5 percent motel-hotel occupancy tax, but his request was denied. He did not ask for it again this year, although the county's General Assembly delegation is planning to offer one anyway.
Brunson, who was addressing Ecker on behalf of the Glenelg Parent-Teacher-Student Association, suggested that the county consider taxing luxury items and having residents pay for trash collection.
Brunson also called for at least a one-year moratorium of the county's farmland preservation program, saying, "The land will still be there" in a year or two. "The developers are not building."
County Chamber of Commerce President Earl Armiger took a different tack, telling Ecker, "This is not a good time to add taxes that affect business."
Armiger said he had polled chamber members about the possibility of collecting so-called nuisance taxes -- energy, telephone and motel-hotel occupancy -- in return for a property tax rate competitive with Montgomery County's, for example. They voted the idea down, he said, because they feared property taxes would grow or stay at the same level even if the nuisance taxes were collected.
What the chamber wants instead, Armiger said, is for the county to approach the recession the same way businessdoes.
"The business community is a giving business community, well-rooted and 85 percent small businesses," he said. "We've had a rough time -- extreme cutbacks, belt-tightening, letting people go."
Jane Walker, president of the Association of Community Services, said the county has trimmed enough. She said service organizations want some "revenue enhancement" but have not decided yet which taxes to support.
She said many human service agency providers chose not to attend last week's budget session because "they all received cuts at Thanksgiving and the prospect of getting anything more is grim" despite dramatic increases in the need for services.
"We have been hit from all sides," she said. "Many, many of us are dependent on donations and they have also dropped. Businesses have been very supportive, butcompany donations are scarce and those able to contribute are givingless than in the past."