Cracking the Budget Whip

March 07, 1995

Recently, when the people who run Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus proposed bringing a mini-version of their three-ring extravaganza to the grounds outside the U.S. Capitol, one couldn't help but be struck by the irony: Would the show inside the building upstage the one outside?

If the circus can't secure a spot on the Mall in Washington, it might consider bringing its show up the parkway to Howard, where officials for county government and the school board are preparing for their annual budget deliberation. Now that school officials have reached tentative agreements with several unions, county and school officials must grapple with how to pay $6.8 million for salary increases. Both sides will now begin maneuvering to win public support for their positions -- with county elected officials trying to show how tough they can be on fiscal matters, while school officials decry the prospect of deep, painful cuts.

It won't compare with the Greatest Show on Earth, but it promises to be interesting nonetheless. In this latest fray over the budget, it would appear county officials have the upper hand -- one they should exercise.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker has pledged not to increase the school system's budget for next year by more than $10 million. Apparently unconvinced, school officials indicate they will ask for an additional $12.4 million.

Mr. Ecker's stance -- to let the board decide for itself what it should cut -- is the correct one. The Howard County Council should follow his lead.

There is good reason to believe the council will stand tough, now that there is a Republican majority and with the county feeling the pinch from flat property values. But school officials have yet to say where they might cut if their budget is not fully funded. There is little question that those proposed cuts will be designed to elicit the strongest public response possible. Look to Dennis R. Schrader, the council's newest GOP member, as a wild card in the final decision-making.

Without arguing the relative merits of the various agreements the school system has reached with its unions, we believe Mr. Ecker's approach is the correct one. Holding the system's feet to the fire is the only way of assuring that it acts responsibly in the midst of the county's financial pressures.

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