Ecker anticipates shaky economic future in his annual address

January 14, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County must continue to prepare for an anemic economy, County Executive Charles I. Ecker told members of the Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

The short-term future is bright, but long-term it is cloudy at best with some experts predicting another downturn in two or three years, Mr. Ecker said in his annual State of the County speech.

"We must continue to watch every penny, work to provide more and better services and produce more results with less money," he said in the 31-minute speech. "Budgets must be reduced before tax rates are increased. People already spend 42 percent of their income on taxes and that's too much," he said.

The strain on the budget will not let up, however. And it is not simply the cost of additions such as the 20 new police officers Mr. Ecker hopes to include in the coming budget, but the growing burden of unanticipated expenses.

Chief among those are the escalating costs of cleaning up the county's leaking landfills.

At Alpha Ridge in Marriottsville, for example, the cost of containing contaminated ground water will run $16 million to $20 million, Mr. Ecker said.

Nearly $2 million has been spent so far at the closed Carrs Mill Landfill and the work there is only beginning.

"We must and we will assure the health and safety of the citizens in the areas adjoining the landfills," Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker said he plans to phase out Alpha Ridge and dispose of the county's landfill trash in a proposed regional incinerator that would convert trash to energy.

Short-term, the cost of conversion will be at least $6.5 million a year more than the county is spending now, he said.

Meanwhile, growing debt payments are taking money away from needed projects, Mr. Ecker said. The way to curtail those expenses, he said, is to limit construction.

A suggestion by Mr. Ecker two months ago that county schools cut construction costs 10 percent to 20 percent met with a frosty reception from school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who said the school system has already restricted construction spending.

"We must differentiate between what would be nice and what is needed," Mr. Ecker said yesterday. "We must change the way we do things," he said. "If we don't change, we will be lost."

Changes will definitely occur in the way education -- the public school system and the community college -- is funded, he said. The county spends almost 60 cents of every tax dollar on education.

In the future, state or county government may take more control, taxing authority may be given local school boards or some combination of the two will occur, he said. Meanwhile, the county must begin a pilot year-round school program and better use existing school buildings, he said.

Mr. Ecker said his administration can solve current and future problems as he has dealt with past ones.

Despite the recession, he point out, the county moved from a deficit three years ago to a surplus today.

"Our taxpayers deserve and must demand a government that is responsible for its actions," he said. "It is government's responsibility and each citizen's responsibility to use our collective creativity and our collective wisdom to provide constructive solutions to the challenges that lie ahead. . . . I can't do it alone. You can't do it alone. But we can do it together."

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