Ecker calls his budget 'austere'

April 19, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent the County Council a $315.4 million operating budget proposal last night for the 1995 fiscal year that appears certain to provoke election-year pyrotechnics.

The proposal is $26.2 million more than the current budget and maintains the property tax rate at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value.

The owner of a $180,000 home would pay about $98 more in taxes, however, due to increased assessments. In all, property owners have seen their tax bills increase by about 27 percent over the past four years, Mr. Ecker said.

But Mr. Ecker cautioned council members, all of whom will be seeking political office on the council or elsewhere this fall, that the budget is so tight already that attempts to cut it and reduce the tax rate could restrict services.

The proposed $26 million increase -- 9 percent above the current budget -- "appears to be a large increase, but when you look over the past three years, some departments are getting less money today than they were in [fiscal year] 1991," Mr. Ecker said. "We cut to the bare bones. It is a very austere budget."

He won't get an argument from department heads. They are saying privately what Board of Education officials are saying publicly: they got hammered.

Mr. Ecker is unimpressed by such complaints.

"In these uncertain times, we must balance what is needed with what is wanted," he said.

School Board President Dana Hanna and Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said they thought the school board was doing exactly that in requesting $167 million in local funding. Mr. Ecker cut the school board request by $4.4 million.

"We were following criteria out lined by, we thought, the executive," Mr. Cousin said. "It is a very well-reasoned, supportable budget that addresses our needs and not our wants."

The cuts "hit us out of the blue -- the size of it," Mr. Hanna said. "It's going to be a large chunk to swallow. It's going to be difficult to go back to a budget we've grappled with."

Mr. Hanna said the school board scrutinized the budget so closely that it was down to "dimes and nickels per science book." The cuts, he said, amount to $114.30 per student. "That's a lot of nickels. . . . We're going to look to the council to provide some kind of remedy. All eyes are on them."

The council can restore money Mr. Ecker cut from the education portion of the budget, but it can only accept or cut his funding recommendations for other departments.

If the council restores funding for education, it must cut elsewhere or raise the tax rate -- something members will be loathe to do in an election year. Other department heads will argue that they have been cut too much already and cannot be cut further.

Mr. Cousin said the council may have an alternative other than raising taxes or stripping other departments.

"The [county] rainy day fund has increased by $7 million and is at, or close to, the max," he said. "It may not have to increase so much so quickly."

Mr. Cousin and Mr. Hanna plan to tell council members that one of the reasons they need full funding in the coming budget is because of the sacrifices they have made in previous ones -- $11.4 million over the past three years, Mr. Cousin said.

"We have a backlog of needs," Mr. Cousin said. "We haven't invested in new equipment because of budget cuts. We've been unable to catch up. We haven't had any new computers in the last three or four years."

Mr. Ecker makes the same argument himself, saying the county deferred a lot of items in the noneducation portion of the budget the past three years that must now be funded.

In addition, the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 must include funding for the opening of a new east Columbia office library, a new county office building in Columbia, increased debt service and an expansion of the county's detention center.

The budget also includes a 3 percent cost of living raise for county employees, and a step increase for employees not yet at the top of their pay scale. The step increase, which would amount to 2.5 percent of an employee's salary, would be paid on the anniversary of the worker's employment.

Again this year, Mr. Ecker has included a contingency in his proposal. Employees would receive another 1 percent cost of living raise in January, provided income tax revenues exceed this year's revenues by 10 percent and other revenues come in as projected. If not, the budget would be reduced by $2 million.

The council will begin hearings on Mr. Ecker's operating budget proposal April 28. It has already begun hearings on his capital budget request. The council will set the tax rate and approve both budgets May 23.

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