Santa Couldn't Run The County Budget

COMMENT

December 12, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

With the holiday season underway, thoughts naturally turn to gifts -- the giving and receiving of them, that is.

That spirit has certainly infected Howard County government, as a host of special interest groups and individuals came forward last week to thrust their wish lists before local elected officials. Not surprisingly, every body, it seems, wants something.

Education advocates want more money for schools.

Animal lovers want more for Animal Control.

Environmentalists want more for solid waste management.

Social service organizations want more for the homeless. That's naming just a few.

In this financial climate, however, somebody's got to play Scrooge. It might as well be me:

The county's next fiscal budget will not be a horn of plenty. Politicians undoubtedly will try to eek out a little something here or there to satisfy various constituents. The pressure to do that swells given that 1994 is an election year. But new demands and shifting priorities are on a collision course with heightened expectations brought about by an improved economy.

"I've found that many people have a false sense that the recession is over and we're back to the good old days," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, when asked about the challenges facing officials who must craft next year's budget.

The recession may be over, but the recovery is going to be slow, Mr. Ecker said, with the probability of many peaks and valleys along the way.

Some of this harsh new reality began to emerge last week, when county officials met with bond regulators and went away less than gleeful about the possibility of the county's bond rating being upgraded. Such an increase would allow the county to borrow at more favorable rates and spend more freely.

Even if the optimists prevail, the county faces a number of unavoidable expenses that will further tie the hands of those who may want more lenience in the municipal budget.

Commitments to hire more police and to open two new libraries, a fire station and an expanded detention center will require a major new infusion of cash for salaries and equipment. Add to that the possibility of salary increases and the unavoidable consequences of inflation, and you have a budget in a head lock.

As always, the school system looms large as a force in every budget deliberation. More than half of county resources go toward education.

Mr. Ecker, once an associate superintendent in Howard, has a track record of being less than kind to his former employer.

This year, he has already expressed some unhappiness with the school system's response to holding the line on school construction costs. Mr. Ecker feels the cuts have not been big enough.

Whether he intends to risk waging war with the school system while running for re-election is unknown.

Key Democrats on the County Council, meanwhile, do not seem so inclined.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray said he's grown weary of Mr. Ecker and Republican Councilman Darrel Drown wrangling with school officials over minute details, while allowing other county agencies to skirt by with less scrutiny.

Meanwhile, councilwoman Shane Pendergrass said she is satisfied for now that education officials have done everything possible to reduce the expense of school construction and wants the county to move on.

Another major question mark for the county's next budget is the cost of mediating contamination at three county landfills. That multi-million dollar effort will address problems stemming from past waste disposal practices. The problem of what to do about future disposal is just as critical.

Mr. Gray contends that the administration is robbing Peter to pay Paul, taking more than $1 million from a composting project to pay for landfill clean-up. There is no long-term, strategic plan for solid waste management.

Of course, if the remedy was simply coming up with enough money to satisfy everyone, the county could simply raise taxes. But not only are election-year tax increases typically acts of political suicide, they soil the business climate, which in turn effects bond ratings. There are no easy answers.

But, have a happy holiday nevertheless.

Just try to keep your wishes within reason.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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