Fiscal Daylight in Howard

April 23, 1992

The surprise in Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker's fiscal 1993 budget isn't so much that he is not raising taxes but that he doesn't have to. After nearly 17 months of clipping and pruning, much of it painful, most of it necessary, Mr. Ecker finds himself in the enviable position of being able to expand Howard's budget without hitting the tax button.

His blueprint for fiscal 1993, released Monday, calls for increasing spending 5.5 percent to $270.3 million. This provides for, among other things, a 2.5 percent raise for increase-starved county employees, money to train rookie police, new libraries and an enlarged recycling effort.

Howard is in good enough financial shape to resist using its new authority to raise the local piggyback tax. Mr. Ecker is exercising restraint in not tapping a big, new revenue source.

This is possible partly because of Howard's largely prosperous residents, partly because of its smaller and simpler government. But as 2nd District Republican Darrel Drown points out, Mr. Ecker's proposal shows the county "really did bite the bullet" last year. If the executive seemed a bit obsessed with sticking to his campaign promise of shrinking government spending -- even when it meant layoffs and furloughs and bit into school spending -- it was precisely the sort of persistence needed.

Now, at a time when other jurisdictions are forcing workers to go yet another year without pay hikes, Howard is in position to underwrite modest, but meaningful increases. The new budget gives the schools enough money to bring in new teachers and provides for small raises for about two-thirds of those already in the system.

The school board, as one might expect, grouses that this isn't good enough and plans to ask for more money for teacher raises. This will no doubt take the form of lobbying to increase the piggyback tax to provide for bigger pay hikes. To date, the council has shown little inclination to trade tax dollars for teacher pay. We hope this aversion continues. Howard County government has shown what a little realism and restraint can accomplish. It's a trend that should be continued in Howard.

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