Ecker submits $289 million budget Plan keeps property tax rate level

April 20, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent the County Council a $289 million proposed operating budget last night that maintains basic services and keeps the property tax rate the same.

Although the tax rate was not raised, residents would pay more due to assessment increases and changes in the fire tax.

The owner of a $180,000 house, for example, would pay $1,958 in property taxes -- $93 more than now.

Mr. Ecker called the budget "reasonable, responsible, and prudent."

"It clearly demonstrates that my No. 1 priority is still education -- which continues to receive the biggest piece of the budget pie," he said. "Public safety and human services also top the priority list after education."

The proposal includes money for additional police officers and a new police substation, expanded recycling, two new libraries, an addition to the county detention center, and health department testing of residential wells near contaminated county landfills.

It calls for a $27 million increase over the current budget and $19 million over the budget initially approved for fiscal 1993. That budget was pared by $8 million because of cuts in state aid.

This is the first time since Mr. Ecker took office that he has increased the budget over the previous year. "That doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet," Mr. Ecker said. "It just means we're a little better off this year."

Mr. Ecker continues to be cautious, however, saying "the economy is still too fragile to deviate from the way we have been operating over the past 28 months."

While the property tax rate remains at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, recently changed fire tax rates increased from one to six cents per $100 of assessed value for most residents, and decreased one to four cents for residents in Clarksville and west Columbia.

Residents in the urban fire district will pay a 22-cent rate, or $166 on a $180,000 home. Residents in the rural fire district will pay a 19-cent rate, or $144 on a $180,000 home.

Although Mr. Ecker increased education funding by $9.2 million over the amount approved last year, the increase is still $5 million less than the school board requested.

The board did not learn until yesterday morning that Mr. Ecker had pared its request. "They were disappointed, no doubt about it," Mr. Ecker said.

"I would hope the council would see fit to restore it, obviously," said school board Chairman Dana Hanna. "I think it is a responsible budget we put forth, therefore I want to see that it is fully funded."

The school board request would give most school system employees a 2.5 percent raise on June 30 in accordance with this year's contract, followed by another 2.5 percent raise the next day, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

The school board can still seek help from the council, which has the power to restore what Mr. Ecker cut from the board's request. In other areas, the council can only accept or cut what Mr. Ecker proposed.

If the council adds the $5 million to education without cutting elsewhere, it would have to raise the property tax rate 8 cents to cover the additional cost. Finding $5 million in cuts elsewhere will not be easy.

"I'm happy he held the property tax rate at the present level" and kept the local income tax rate at 50 percent of the state income tax, said Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd. "It would have been nice to reduce the property tax by a cent or two to offset the fire tax increase. We may still want to trim a penny or two, but it's going to be real tough to cut any further."

Mr. Drown said he was happy also that Mr. Ecker included a salary increase of about 1 percent for most county workers. The increase would take effect on the anniversary of their employment. Employees would receive an additional 3 percent raise Jan. 1 if local income tax revenue from the current fiscal year increases by 10 percent over last year.

The proposed budget calls for a $1.8 million increase in the public works budget. Most of the additional money would provide curb-side recycling to all single family homes within the county and start three new programs: hazardous waste recycling, tree and limb mulching, and tire recycling.

Mr. Ecker put $1.4 million extra in the police budget -- with the bulk of the increase paying for 12 new officers, 18 new recruits and eight new vehicles. He put $536,000 more in the corrections budget to pay for an addition to the county detention center that is scheduled to open next May. The increase includes money for 27 new correctional officers and four new civilian workers.

Most of the public library increase, $886,000, would be used to open and staff new libraries in Elkridge and East Columbia. The branch libraries would swell the library staff by 28 people.

The health department would receive $100,000 to test residential wells near the Alpha Ridge Landfill for contaminants.

The County Council will begin public hearings on the budget pro

posal at 7:30 p.m. April 28. Hearings on Mr. Ecker's proposed $76 million capital budget begin at 8 tonight.

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