Executive gets an earful on what projects to fund

March 10, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker heard a dire message last night from more than 180 residents who showed up at a budget hearing to tell him what they want for the coming fiscal year.

The litany of complaints covered everything from crime to public education to storm water management.

Taken as a whole, the message was this: Howard County, one of

the 10 most affluent jurisdictions in the nation, is falling apart and needs immediate repair.

There are not enough police officers to cope with juvenile crime, schoolchildren don't have textbooks, neighborhoods are flooded when it rains, and vehicles used to transport the elderly and disabled are unsafe, Mr. Ecker was told last night.

The sought-after solutions were the same -- put enough money in the budget for the coming fiscal year to fix the problems.

It is easier said than done. The problem for Mr. Ecker is that operating budget requests from county departments are already $3 million more than projected revenue, and capital budget requests are $36 million more than a panel of financial advisers says the county can afford.

"We have to do more with less," Mr. Ecker told the residents. "All our options are bad. We have to cut out services or increase taxes. There is no good option."

Most residents testifying last night urged Mr. Ecker to find the money to fund their projects.

Nancy Perkins of Vista Road told him that her neighborhood gets a flood every time it rains and cannot wait three years for storm drains.

Wilbur Coyle of Simpsonville told Mr. Ecker that "serious crime is up and juvenile crime is way up" and that more officers are needed to deal with the problem.

Mr. Coyle, who is a member of the police department's citizens advisory council, said the optimum number of new officers needed is 180, "but no one would present that to you."

What his group is recommending instead, Mr. Coyle said, is that the county hire 35 new police officers a year and purchase 50 new vehicles a year for the next three years.

Vehicle replacement is also a "desperate need" of the Urban Rural Transportation Alliance -- a county-supported organization that provides transportation for the elderly and disabled, said Janet McGlynn, the organization's executive director.

Ms. McGlynn said the county should begin replacing "unsafe" URTA vehicles at a rate of six per year. Meanwhile, the demand for rides is growing, she said, and is expected to reach 60,000 trips this year.

Ellen Hartranft, president of the Oakland Mills Middle School PTA, said the air conditioning and heating at the school is so bad that students had to be sent home one day recently. It is common for the temperature to fluctuate by 30 degrees from one day to the next, she said.

"No one can work under those conditions," Ms. Hartranft said.

If the county neglects older facilities like Oakland Mills Middle School, the neighborhood itself will fall into decline at a far greater cost than repairing the air conditioning, Ms. Hartranft said.

Lynn Benton, president of the county PTA Council, pleaded with Mr. Ecker to fully fund the education portion of the budget, saying cuts in funding that were supposed to have been temporary measures in lean years have now become institutionalized.

"We have eight new schools and 20 percent greater enrollment" than last year, she said. "The needs of our county schools are growing at a faster rate than county revenues."

Ms. Benton urged the executive to raise the taxes necessary to fully fund the education budget -- a plea echoed by defenders of the schools' spending request.

Leighton Davenport of Savage seemed to speak for many when she said, "I would rather pay more taxes than private school tuition."

Conflicting views were presented on another issue: whether to connect Hale Haven Road with Doncaster Drive. About 60 people were in favor, and 60 were opposed.

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