Ecker gets 'wake-up call' on spending, revenue

January 11, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker got bad news and worse news from a group of financial advisers yesterday at a briefing on the county's spending and revenue picture.

The bad news is that the county may not have enough revenue coming in to pay for all existing programs in the budget year that starts July 1.

Worse, residents could pay more in taxes and fees within the next 18 months if the county continues to provide the same level of services.

And the school system in particular may face a tough time getting all the funding it needs for capital projects to build new schools and improve old ones.

"This is a wake-up call for Howard County," said Joseph W. Raksis, chairman of the 16-member task force that reported to Ecker yesterday. "It is critical that the executive's office and the County Council work with residents to make sure [the county's] priorities are in order."

Whatever solution is found, it should not include a tax increase this year, Mr. Raksis said. Instead, "the time is at hand for efficiencies" in the budget, he said.

Mr. Ecker said that raising taxes would be a "last resort," and that he intends first to "look at reducing expenses." He said the school system would continue to receive the largest percentage of money in both the capital and operating budgets.

But budget cuts that do not reduce services may be hard to be find. The task force told Mr. Ecker that the $323 million in revenues expected for the operating budget will fall about $1 million short of what the county needs to maintain the current level of service.

In addition, capital budget requests could reach $78 million -- $43 million more than the task force says is prudent. The school board request alone amounts to $36 million. The task force recommended an overall ceiling of $35 million.

The picture gets worse 18 months from now when the county will have to pay $7 million to $7.5 million more to take its trash to dumps and incinerators outside the county.

The added cost of trash removal -- trash is now buried in the Alpha Ridge landfill -- would raise the property tax rate by 11 cents if the county uses property taxes to pay for it, the task force report said.

An 11-cent increase to $2.70 per $100 of assessed value would give the county the highest property tax rate since 1974 when it was $2.75 per $100 of assessed value.

The owner of a $195,563 house, which was the average price for a single-family dwelling in the past year, would pay $86 more a year in property taxes with an 11-cent increase.

"The time is running out [for residents, the council, the executive, and the school board] to work together to come up with some solutions," said John W. Hollerbach, chairman of the task force's bonding affordability subcommittee.

Mr. Hollerbach's subcommittee criticized the Board of Education for not being able to "limit its expenses and capital needs," and it faulted the administration for not having a comprehensive capital spending plan.

But task force member Sydney L. Cousin, associate school superintendent for finance and operations, bristled at the notion that the school system is not trying to be as frugal as other branches of government.

"School system growth is being driven by enrollment," he said. "We need a place to house 13,000 new students over the next 10 years. . . . I am sensitive to criticism that we're not doing all we could do, because I don't believe that's the case."

The task force warned in its report that "the county is fast approaching a point where the need for road improvements, solid waste facilities and other infrastructure needs will come into direct conflict with the need for school construction and the ability to service the debt for those improvements."

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