Roads vs. Schools

April 01, 1994

True to form, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has put forward a conservative $63 million capital budget for fiscal year 1995, which begins July 1. The package gives the go-ahead to some road resurfacing projects, but pulls back on school construction -- the result being a 22 percent decrease in capital spending compared with this year.

Mr. Ecker, who was the county school system's chief financial officer before getting elected county executive, has taken with his fourth capital budget a position only a numbers-cruncher could love. Its foundation is that by holding down the rate of growth on capital spending, the county borrows less and maintains greater control over its financial future. "If we do not slow the rate of growth in our debt," Mr. Ecker stated in his budget message, "we will guarantee an increase in the tax rate and/or a loss of service to our citizens."

Mr. Ecker concludes that neither increased taxes nor fewer services is an acceptable alternative. No one we know would jump at those choices, either. But whether county residents will agree with Mr. Ecker's plan is another matter.

The county executive concedes that public spending on road resurfacing lagged behind schedule during the beginning of his term, when a failing economy stalled the county's financial engine. Thus, Mr. Ecker is proposing that the county cease its restrictive pay-as-you-go policy toward road projects and, at least for now, float bonds totaling $3 million to pay for resurfacing.

This more indulgent approach toward road work, however, was not taken toward the public schools. To be sure, education would still continue to get the lion's share of county capital funding. But the county executive's reduction in the rate of growth means that school officials will receive $1.26 million less than they requested. The immediate impact could mean less money for a new eastern county high school in the Long Reach village of Columbia.

Like all financial plans, Mr. Ecker's capital budget is a gamble. The difference, of course, is that this one comes in an election year, when political calculations are as much a part of the equation as debits and receivables. Whether county voters share Mr. Ecker's priorities may ultimately depend on how persuasive Mr. Ecker's rivals are in convincing voters he's wrong.

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