After seeing staff members outnumber people waiting to testify at his budget hearing last week by a ratio of 5-to-1, County Executive Charles I. Ecker seemed bewildered.
"I really don't know what to think," he said after only seven people showed up to testify about the $277 million operating budget and $94 million capital budget requested by his department heads for fiscal 1993.
The operating request is 2.5 percent more than the County Councilapproved last year and $14 million more than Ecker's financial advisory committee says the county can safely budget for the coming year. It includes no new programs or salary increases.
Ecker's bond affordability committee has yet to advise him on this year's capital budget. A year ago, the committee urged Ecker to slash $20 million from departmental requests and limit general obligation bond sales to $55 million. General obligation bond requests this year are $61.3 million.
"I was surprised there were not more people (at Wednesday night'shearing)," Ecker said. "Maybe people didn't know about it. Or, maybe, they realize that we are in severe financial condition.
"If people were not there because we have a serious financial problem, then it's good to realize that. If they were not there because they didn't know about it, that's a problem. I want to know what people think."
County budget administrator Raymond S. Wacks said that it was possible that many people didn't know about the hearing.
"We obviously didn't advertise as much as in the past," he said. Advertising was one of the casualties of last year's budget trimming.
The seven people who testified Wednesday night asked Ecker to fund favored projects-- Howard Community College, renovation of the central library and the opening of new libraries in Elkridge and East Columbia, services for the elderly and care for the mentally ill.
A year ago, passionsover the budget were so high Ecker had to move the hearings to MountHebron High School and hold them on two nights. More than 1,000 attended the first night and 62 testified. They received enthusiastic applause as they spoke against Ecker's proposed cuts. Ecker himself was greeted with hoots, whistles and jeers.
Last year, the county ended up cutting programs, raising taxes, borrowing from special funds, laying off employees and furloughing everybody five days without pay.
This year, "there is still so much unknown," Wacks said. "If things go badly at the state end, things could be more difficult than lastyear."
Those who testified Wednesday offered no solutions. They asked only that the executive consider giving their problems priority when cutting the budget.
Ecker will send his capital budget proposals to the County Council April 1. He will give the council his operating proposals April 19.
With the exception of the education portion of the budget, the council can only accept or cut what Ecker proposes. It may restore to the education portion any money Ecker cuts from the Board of Education request.
The council is scheduled to voteon the budget and set the fiscal 1993 property tax rate May 21. The new fiscal year begins July 1.