Ecker Glides Smoothly Through Fiscal Storms

PETER A. JAY

May 10, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

ELLICOTT CITY — Ellicott City. -- To hear most suburban Maryland politicians talk, fiscal Armageddon is just around the corner. So why does Charles Ecker seem so healthy, so relaxed, and so much at peace with the world?

It could be congenital optimism. But it could also be the fact that Mr. Ecker, the Howard County executive, has been able to propose a budget for the coming fiscal year that requires neither an increase in taxes nor harsh cuts in services. His constituents may not be thrilled with his budget, which is certainly a tight one, but they're not screaming for his scalp either. This year, that alone is something to celebrate.

Going into the 1990 elections, there weren't any Republican county executives in the suburbs around Baltimore. Now there are three, including Mr. Ecker. Each owes his election to voter disgust with the status quo, and each has now had about 18 months of dealing first-hand with reality. So far, Mr. Ecker's performance has been easily the best.

It's a fact, of course, that governing little Howard County is just plain easier than governing bigger and more diverse places. Howard is affluent, with a median family income almost equal to Montgomery County's, and its political traditions tend more to civility than to mayhem.

In Baltimore County, by contrast, Roger Hayden is having a mighty rough ride, and some of his 1990 supporters already see him as a one-term phenomenon in the great Towson tradition. (Democrat Don Hutchinson is the only Baltimore County executive ever to complete two four-year terms.) And in Anne Arundel, it hasn't been all milk and cookies for the third Republican executive, Robert Neall.

Mr. Ecker has had his problems, naturally enough. A year ago, he had to raise the property tax rate by 14 cents, to $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, to balance his budget. Howard County planning and zoning issues continue to generate a lot of heat. He is going to have to do something about expanding the county landfill.

But his county's bonds continue to receive good ratings, and there are signs of a better business climate in the months ahead. He is estimating that Howard's share of the state income tax will be up next year by a modest 2 percent. That's nothing like the 18 percent those receipts increased in 1989, but it's growth nevertheless.

And finally, he will have an interesting charter amendment on the ballot this fall -- a proposal to require Howard County to build up a "rainy day" fund equal to 7 percent of the previous year's expenditures. If it passes, the amendment will give the county a way to cushion unexpected shocks, such as reduced grants from Annapolis.

In some years, a Republican with Mr. Ecker's record would be a potential candidate for statewide office, even though Howard politicians, like Montgomery ones, tend not to travel well. But the odds are that he'll leave all that to Mr. Neall or somebody else in 1994 and concentrate on winning another term in Howard County.

If he does, he'll have history on his side. Since adopting charter government in 1969, Howard has always reelected its incumbent Republican county executives, and always defeated Democrats seeking second terms.

Roger Hayden's situation is entirely different. His management of Baltimore County since his election may be hard to criticize objectively, but in a place where noise decides more elections than logic, that won't reduce the criticism by so much as a decibel.

He prides himself not simply on trimming the county work force by 1,000 jobs since he took office, but on doing it "the humane way," mostly through attrition. But will that put the heavily unionized work force on his side in 1994? Don't hold your breath.

Mr. Hayden was elected almost entirely because of the efforts of the Baltimore County tax-resistance movement. Although his credentials, as a manager in private industry and a 12-year veteran of the county school board, were as good or better than anyone else's, if his name had been "None of the Above" he would have won just as easily.

His tax-resistance support is weaker now, since he backed increasing Baltimore County's piggyback surcharge on the state income tax from 50 to 55 percent. He had to do that, he maintains, because the county's 4 percent cap on property assessment increases gave him no other option, but it's far from clear that this explanation will satisfy his old allies.

Not that he seems to care much. He dismisses the anti-tax movement today with a wave of his hand. County legislators who opposed increased state taxes, he says, "seemed to believe the tax protesters are 99 percent of the population -- and even if they are, you have to be responsible." Take that, you radical anti-tax freaks!

The only other Republican ever to win election as Baltimore County executive was in just about every respect less qualified for the job than is Mr. Hayden. He too was elected as something of a fluke. After one term, when it became clear to him that he would have real problems getting re-elected, he went on to other things. His name was Spiro Agnew.

Mr. Hayden says cheerfully that if the voters of Baltimore County don't want to give him another term, he will return to the private sector. Right now, the odds look as though he might be doing just that in another 30 months, but in Baltimore County politics about the only certainty is that today's odds won't be the same as tomorrow's.

That's not the case in tranquil Howard, though. Here, if Charles Ecker ever decides to alienate the folks who put him in office, he'll really have to work at it.

Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.

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