Tax cut unlikely, Ecker says

November 15, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that county residents should not expect a lower property tax rate this year, because tax revenues still are sluggish.

"I certainly hope we won't have a tax increase and it doesn't appear likely" that the county will have one, he said, "but I am waiting to hear from the bond and budget affordability committees."

The committees, composed of county financial officers and some residents, are expected to send Mr. Ecker stark reports early next month that tell a familiar but continuing budget saga: expenses outpacing revenues.

Next year's property tax rate will be set in May by the County Council.

In 1991, after Mr. Ecker was elected to his first term, he and the council increased Howard's property tax rate to the current $2.59 per $100 assessed value.

"We will still have an austere budget, but I hope we can include some cost-of-living increases" for county employees," said Mr. Ecker, who last week was re-elected to a second four-year term.

He also said he'd like to hire additional police and firefighters.

County employees would have received a 1 percent cost-of-living increase Jan. 1, 1995, if local income tax revenues had grown by 10 percent over the past year.

Instead, local income tax revenues grew by little more than half that -- 5.46 percent. "It wasn't even close," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.

In past years, Mr. Wacks' office has underestimated revenues. This year, revenues fell below his modest projections for the first time.

Mr. Wacks does not expect this year's picture to improve.

"Property tax revenue accounts for 50 percent of the budget," and its growth has slowed considerably, he said.

Property tax rates are based on property values determined every three years by state assessors.

In many areas, those values are declining.

For example, the latest assessment for houses in the Columbia village of Wilde Lake shows that values are barely changing and, in some cases, slightly declining, Mr. Wacks said.

Three years ago, values for those houses were increasing at a rate of 5 percent to 7 percent a year, he said.

"Long term, slower growing revenues mean slower growing budgets," Mr. Wacks said.

"Even if housing prices turned around today -- which they are not -- it would be several years before we could tell the difference" in added revenue, he said.

Mr. Wacks said the county will "probably be OK" through fiscal 1996, but fiscal 1997 through 1999 "could pose major problems.

The county faces some very large road, school and garbage bills in its future, but does not have enough bond capacity to pay them without help from the state, Mr. Wacks said.

Mr. Ecker expects that the bond affordability committee will tell him next month that the county cannot afford to issue more than $30 million to $35 million in new bonds for fiscal 1996. Meanwhile, "We're looking at $40 million in school requests" for new bonds, he said.

The executive said he will remind people at a budget hearing Dec. 15 that the county is still on an austerity program.

The purpose of the hearing is to give residents the chance to tell him what they want to see funded in the next budget.

The rising cost of disposing of the county's trash is one of the main sources of the financial crunch. Howard, which now buries its solid waste at the Marriottsville landfill, next year will begin sending the trash to landfills out of the county -- at higher costs.

Mr. Ecker also said he would like to establish a county Department of the Environment to deal comprehensively with all of the county's environmental and trash disposal problems: waste management, recycling, disposal of hazardous materials, and federal and state mandates for clean air and clean water.

"The department would consolidate and bring together a whole bunch of environmental issues" under one roof, he said. "I don't believe it would mean an increase in staff" but a shift of personnel from other departments.

Mr. Ecker will need council approval to create a new department and fund it in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

If he decides to go forward with the idea, he will have to bring it to the council by late next month.

"I have to let the council know [of the idea] by Dec. 20," he said. Details would come later -- probably around February, he said.

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