In public hearings last week, an overwhelming majority of Howard County citizens urged against increasing the piggyback income tax. The county council and the county executive have done just that, choosing instead to levy a host of user fees and a tax on hotel and motel stays to keep services at existing levels. "I think the citizens of this county are already hard-hit with taxes," said Mr. Ecker. "I know this is a wealthy county, but we also have poor people and people on fixed incomes who can't afford to pay more taxes."
At this point, Howard appears suitably nimble to get by without one. While nothing to write home about, the spending plan for the 12 months beginning July 1 is modestly robust. Services are not only being maintained, but in some cases expanded. There's money to stock two new libraries and to significantly expand curb-side recycling. The Board of Education will be able to maintain current class sizes and put necessary personnel into two new schools slated to open next year. Most county workers and teachers will get small raises of about 2.5 percent.
Mr. Ecker says Howard residents are "fortunate to be able to maintain services" without a tax hike and that "citizens can expect their high quality of life to continue." Yet there are signs to the contrary. School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is worried about the dilution in school supplies and staff development. Council members C. Vernon Gray and Shane Pendergrass, sponsors of a failed measure that would have temporarily raised the piggyback tax from 50 percent to 52 percent, worry that mid-year cuts in state aid will force unanticipated cuts in education and other areas. "I hope," Ms. Pendergrass added, "we don't look back in six or nine months and say, 'I wish we had raised the piggyback.' " Certainly, no jurisdiction wants to face higher taxes. But a tiny, temporary increase in the piggyback would have given Howard a much-needed cushion against shenanigans with state aid later this year. Only time will tell whether Howard politicians made the right move. But if there's one lesson that should have been learned from the lingering recession it's the need for a cushion of some sort against unforeseen developments.