Residents not fazed by deficit Howard education gets mass support

December 15, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker's gloomy prediction that the county will begin the next fiscal year with a $9 million deficit had little effect on the small crowd attending last night's budget hearing.

Most of the 15 people who testified told the executive that no matter what else happens, they want him to fund favored projects. Mr. Ecker had been looking for help in cutting the budget.

"I get an 'F' on cuts," said Ellen Rennels, president of the county PTA Council. "I'm lobbying for continuing support for education."

The perception of some people is that the school system is not bleeding enough, Ms. Rennels said. The problem, she said, is that the school system's wounds are not visible.

She said cuts to the education budget "are like ulcers, bleeding on the inside." Class sizes have increased, career development has been stymied, maintenance has been deferred and supplies are short.

Despite such handicaps, the county continues to be a national leader in test scores, Ms. Rennels said. "If we keep eroding the education budget, those numbers cannot stand."

Ms. Rennels called on residents to "look at the need" to raise property taxes, or the local income tax, or both "so we can pay for the quality we have come to expect here."

Patrick Dornan, president of the Howard County Taxpayers' Association, took an opposite tack. Mr. Dornan criticized the "vast bureaucracy of the Department of Education," saying it "whines" every year about the budget. "Education needs to refocus on what it needs to do, not what it wants to do," he said.

Even if property and local income taxes stay the same, there will be "massive" increases in fire taxes in fiscal 1994, which begins July 1, Mr. Dornan said. "I don't know about anybody else, but I have to work to the middle of May to pay taxes now," he said. "That's too much."

Fire taxes pay for 462 volunteer and 167 career firefighters and emergency medical service personnel in the county's six fire districts.

Virginia W. Charles of Laurel espoused a middle ground. "I don't represent anybody," she said. "I would like to say that nothing should be cut [because] at this point, cuts are destructive and permanently harmful."

But because some programs will have to be cut, she approached the budget on the basis of what should not be cut -- public safety, health and social services and the school budget are "too important," she said.

"A child's education is the one thing in the county that cannot be postponed," Ms. Charles said.

What can be cut, Ms. Charles said, are things that can be postponed -- additional libraries, parks and road improvements. "I may be slightly inconvenienced" if those items are cut, she said, "but I really will survive."

As for generating income, Ms. Charles suggested the executive raise property taxes and charge user fees for recreational programs and solid waste collection. "The people who make use of these services should pay for them," she said.

Other speakers asked Mr. Ecker to fund programs for retarded people, provide recreational opportunities for special populations, such as disabled children, support the Elkridge branch library and pay for a model airplane program. They also asked for financial help for Howard Community College.

Mr. Ecker had opened the meeting by telling people the county would have $23 million in new expenses in fiscal 1994 and only $14 million in new revenue.

The new expenses include $13 million for the school system, $4.5 million in new debt service, $2 million for additional recycling, $1 million to fill police vacancies, $1 million to fund two new libraries, $750,000 for general services, $600,000 for expansion of the detention center, and $200,000 for the health department. The expenses do not include raises or cost-of-living increases.

After the hearing, Mr. Ecker said he felt most people "understand the financial situation we're in. There are some needs out there they feel should be included in the budget."

Mr. Ecker said he was impressed by the number of people who said they didn't want to raise taxes, but could not promise there would be no increase. "I don't think the economy is going to turn around for maybe the rest of the '90s," he said.

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