Ecker Holds the Castor Oil HOWARD COUNTY

April 21, 1993

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has served up possibly his most digestible budget yet. After two years of wrangling over where to make inevitable -- and unavoidable -- cuts in programs and services, Mr. Ecker's latest spending plan holds the line on the property tax rate, increases the police force, expands recycling and adds two new libraries.

The price tag for all this: $289 million. Mr. Ecker asserted that the proposal, about 6.5 percent more than the one approved last year, is "reasonable, responsible and prudent."

While many county residents will pay more in property taxes due to increased real estate assessments, this is not a spendthrift proposal.

Any major changes by the County Council will push that body into the awkward position of raising taxes, something it is not likely to do. That should give Mr. Ecker a chance to loosen his tie this time around. He shouldn't get too comfortable, however, if he thinks his budget will satisfy people in the school system.

While Mr. Ecker insists that his "number one priority is still education," school officials will point to the $5.4 million the executive has cut from their request (even though he did increase education spending by $9.2 million.)

The lion's share of Mr. Ecker's cut would go toward Social Security taxes and a salary increase for teachers.

The state shifted the Social Security burden to the local jurisdictions, so the county must pay that, but Mr. Ecker opposes the salary increase. While some teachers would get 5 percent raises under the school system's plan, Mr. Ecker has offered 1 percent increases for most county workers.

There undoubtedly will be much lobbying between educators and council members to restore the full request, but school officials should not expect it all.

Possibly aside from education, Mr. Ecker's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 doesn't give potential critics much to fight about. That reflects not only Howard County's improved economic situation, but political reality.

With a local election year around the corner, in 1994, it was unlikely that the county executive would be serving bitter pills or castor oil at this point.

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