Ecker offers a qualified fiscal promise: No new taxes unless funding shrinks

January 20, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker told members of the Chamber of Commerce yesterday that he will not increase taxes the coming fiscal year unless forced to because of cuts in federal or state aid.

"We are going to live within our means," Mr. Ecker told a luncheon crowd of more than 200 people in Columbia at the county executive's fifth state of the county address.

But to keep his pledge of no new taxes in the budget year that starts July 1, Mr. Ecker will need help from the school system, particularly in the area of new construction.

"The cost of school buildings must continue to be decreased," he said. "There are too many square feet per student. We provide more than our neighbors do. The cost of the buildings must be reduced by reducing the size of the buildings."

The tax pledge and the call for reduced school construction spending were among the top themes in Mr. Ecker's 26-minute speech, his first major address since his re-election last November.

Since he took office four years ago, Mr. Ecker said, the county's quality of life has improved, even as his administration has worked hard to economize.

"Your county government -- the police, libraries, highways, human services, county administration -- is spending six percent less today than when compared with four years ago, yet services have increased," he said.

Not only that, but the county has moved from a $23 million shortfall to a $20 million surplus now preserved in a rainy-day fund, he said.

Still, the economy is fragile, he said, adding that he believes Maryland "is still very much in the recession" and that more dire economic news may lie ahead.

To protect themselves, the state and the county must improve their business climate, said Mr. Ecker, who warned that Maryland is "losing business to our neighboring states and the Carolinas."

The county executive said his administration "will review its rules, regulations, and requirements to see what can be changed to be more business friendly." The county can be both pro-environment and pro-development, he said. "They can go hand in hand."

After the speech, Harry Lundy Jr., president and chief executive officer of Williamsburg Homes, praised Mr. Ecker for having "decreased expenses by 6 percent. I don't think it means services have decreased that much, and it means that taxes will remain the same."

But some associated with the school system took a different view.

"There was nothing new," said James R. Swab, president of the Howard County Educational Association, said. "He didn't talk enough about rapid growth -- the 1,800 students coming into the system next year -- and pledge to accept those students."

County schools are suffering a shortage of textbooks and have "enormous class sizes," Mr. Swab said, and employees need salary increases.

"The county executive should at least look at impact taxes [for new homeowners] so that those moving into the county can help pay the costs as they share the rewards of our educational system," he said.

Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance and operations, said that the school system has already taken steps to economize, cutting the square footage of planned middle schools by 10 percent and elementary schools by 6 percent.

County schools "always come in below state costs," he said. "Growth is not something we have control over. . . . We will have 13,000 students [entering the school system in the next decade], and we have to provide for those students."

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