Squeeze on state aid will mean 'a difficult year' for schools, Ecker says

January 06, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County schools should not look for much more than a minimal funding increase in the coming fiscal year because of an expected squeeze on state aid, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday.

"It's going be a difficult year budgetwise -- maybe our toughest yet," said Mr. Ecker, who attended this week's meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties in Hunt Valley.

At yesterday's session, Mr. Ecker heard state officials predict lower income tax revenues in the coming year and a sluggish economy for the remainder of the decade.

Meanwhile, Gov.-elect Parris N. Glendening has said he wants to limit the increase in state spending to no more than 4.5 percent this year, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. has suggested the possibility of a tax cut.

As a result, Mr. Ecker and his financial advisers are having a difficult time figuring out how much state aid the county will get in the coming fiscal year.

"I don't know what may happen," said Mr. Ecker said. "I don't think we will get a decrease [in state aid in the next fiscal year], but we may not get an increase. My role is to make sure they don't take away from what we have."

Given the state and county financial situations, the county can do little more this year than provide education funding required by state law, Mr. Ecker said. The so-called maintenance-of-effort law requires counties to spend as much per pupil in any given year as they did in the previous one.

Because of an increase in the number of pupils, it will cost Howard County about $6 million more in fiscal 1996 to keep the same level of per-pupil spending as now.

"I expect we could include a little more [for education] than $6 million, but how much more, I don't know yet," Mr. Ecker said.

Work on the county budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 started earlier this month when department heads began putting together preliminary requests for submission to the Planning Board, which will review them Feb. 1.

"It's nail-biting time," said county Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks. "The cup is less full for the foreseeable future." Mr. Wacks thinks the county "will break even" for the fiscal year that ends June 30 but is not making predictions for the next fiscal year.

The county counts on local revenue for a third of its funds, but "wild swings in taxpayer behavior" -- especially among people who pay estimated taxes on a quarterly basis -- makes estimating revenues "a very chancy business," Mr. Wacks said.

In addition, the state expects to have less money coming in. Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who has close ties to Mr. Glendening, says the state will have $200 million to $300 million less to distribute this year than under Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed budget.

"We're in tight fiscal times in both the state and the county, and we're going to need growth in the economy -- putting people to work and increasing revenue," said Mr. Gray, a 2nd District Democrat. "The counties are going to have to work very closely with the governor, sometimes without money." As a result, Howard County Council members warn that local school officials should prepare a frugal budget.

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