Realism in Howard

April 29, 1992

Having hewed to his campaign pledge of no new taxes in this year's spending plan, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is now taking the inevitable drubbing from factions that didn't get what they wanted. Welcome to the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't world of recessionary politics. His proposal doesn't raise taxes or cut services. It gives most county workers a 2 percent longevity pay raise, provides for new police officers and libraries and advances Howard's recycling effort.

The Howard County Education Association wants more. That includes restoring the $3.5 million slashed from the school budget request and granting cost-of-living increases. The teachers' union points to 1990 census numbers showing that Howard boasts the highest median income in the state. "Howard County is wealthy enough to give the people who serve it cost of living increases," said union president James R. Swab. "What we had hoped for in Chuck Ecker's budget was a bi-partisan effort to give county and school employees cost of living increases. Unfortunately politics is being played again."

Hardly. We suspect Mr. Ecker's caution has less to do with politics than economic reality. Even affluent Howard County has not escaped the rigors of recession. Unemployment is hovering around 5 percent, with many of the newly unemployed having been thrown out of high-paying jobs. Business growth, too, has taken a hit. The county ended 1991 with the highest office vacancy rate in the region. County budgeteers expect more of the same in the year ahead -- overall revenues aren't expected to grow much more than 2 percent.

In these circumstances, Mr. Ecker's approach is both prudent and realistic. It's also a bit less wrenching than what's being done elsewhere. What Mr. Ecker is proposing is certainly a good deal less than what Howard workers and residents are accustomed to. Nonetheless, it is the kind of budget that may get the county through the next fiscal year without painful adjustments.

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