Can Ecker be good cop and bad cop?

April 21, 1994

Howard County workers moved quickly this week to register their opposition to County Executive Charles I. Ecker's decision to limit annual merit increases in future years. Mr. Ecker moved just as quickly to back off the decision, promising the limitation will be imposed for only one year -- at least for now. So goes politics in an election year, as predictable as the seasons but twice as fun to witness.

Backing off from his proposal to hold future merit increases for county employees at 2 1/2 percent annually, Mr. Ecker has taken an expedient course by trying not to anger employees. Still, this is not a major capitulation. It simply means that a cap on merit increases will not go forward this year.

Mr. Ecker can, of course, revisit the issue next year if he wins re-election this fall. For now, the executive is doing what he has done almost since taking office, imposing varying limits on merit increases each year. In fact, in his first recessionary year as executive, he eliminated merit raises altogether.

His track record as a fiscal conservative has not endeared him to all county employees. Not surprisingly, they came out in force at a recent council hearing to protest his merit cap proposal. Their arguments, however, seemed specious.

There was moaning that 5 percent annual merit raises had been promised to long-time employees -- apparently in perpetuity. It seemed not to occur to many of these workers that the days of virtual guarantees in merit and cost-of-living raises, while joyful in the '80s, weren't realistic.

By bowing to pressure, Mr. Ecker is conceding that the county's financial picture is rosier than it was when he took office more than three years ago. At the same time, he has released a proposed operating budget for fiscal year 1995 that he calls austere, and cautions County Council members not to cut further.

Once considered so frugal as to be brutal, the new Mr. Ecker is, ahem, kinder and gentler. As earnest as he appears, however, Mr. Ecker will have trouble playing both the good cop and bad cop of county finances.

The county work force may be happy he has backed off the merit cap proposal, but county residents, including many white-collar middle managers, have seen their own job situations become more tenuous. They won't react well to any sense that county workers are being insulated from what they have had to endure.

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