Where Ecker's Apt to Cut HOWARD COUNTY

September 29, 1992

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has no stomach for a fight with Gov. William Donald Schaefer over the state's current budget problems.

Mr. Ecker says he's resigned to the current crisis and asks only that the cuts be spread equitably among counties and that the state begin a systematic restructuring that will avoid painful and unexpected budget shortfalls in the future.

Given Mr. Ecker's rational approach, what is left now is to consider the effects all of this will have on county residents and the services they have come to expect.

As yet the estimates aren't firm, but county officials say Howard may have to absorb reductions ranging from $6.5 million to $9 million.

Mr. Ecker has little flexibility over how those cuts can be made. Chances are good, however, that the lion's share will come from the county's board of education and community college. About 60 percent of the county's budget goes to schools, with the bulk of that coming from the state.

Mr. Ecker cannot dictate where cuts are made in the school system, but he can rest assured that school officials will work hard to place the blame for reductions squarely on his shoulders. Mr. Ecker has been down this road before, and with painful results.

Last year, with $8 million in state cuts to contend with, the county executive insisted that teachers forego a negotiated salary increase. In doing so, he raised the ire of the teachers union and risked alienating parents in a county where schools are given high priority. Mr. Ecker rightly wants to avoid a repeat of that experience, and yet he says, "I have no alternative."

What he will likely do is try and spread the cuts among county departments, although a specific plan will not be known until after the state firms up its projections. When Mr. Ecker tried to spread out the cuts a year ago, it did not go over well. Many teachers were skeptical about the severity of the county's fiscal problems.

This time, Mr. Ecker hopes people have a greater appreciation of how serious the state's budget crisis has become and will not be so quick to blame him.

Residents will also have to ponder the alternative to cutting services: Raising local taxes.

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