Ecker requests capital budget of $93 million

March 29, 1995|By James M. Coram and Howard Libit | James M. Coram and Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writers

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent the County Council a $93 million capital budget request yesterday that is sure to provoke controversy -- not so much for what it includes as for what it excludes.

Although Mr. Ecker's fiscal 1996 request is 30 percent more than the capital budget the County Council approved last year, there is no money for road construction and the school system would get getting $9.4 million less than it sought.

"We have to live within our means," Mr. Ecker said. "It may mean that education is going to get less money."

The 18.2 percent reduction in the school system's $51.3 million capital budget request comes as Howard school officials project that student enrollment will increase by more than 30 percent in the next 10 years.

School officials were disappointed but not surprised. "I know that $51 million is a lot of money, but we also have a lot of new students coming on-line," said Susan Cook, school board chairwoman. "The population continues to grow on each level, and we really need the facilities to accommodate that growth."

Rethinking construction

Sydney L. Cousin, the school system's associate superintendent for finance and operations, said school officials will have to go back and look at which of its 13 construction projects scheduled for next year will have to be reduced or postponed.

For the long term, Mr. Ecker told school officials in a message yesterday that big cuts need to be made in the approximately $300 million that the school system plans to spend over the next decade to build or expand two dozen elementary, middle and high schools.

Getting less money does not mean providing less education, Mr. Ecker said. He repeated a favorite argument yesterday, saying the school system can build schools smaller without sacrificing quality.

As examples of how the schools could do more with less, Mr. Ecker pointed to "significant" economies in county government operations made during first his two years in office without a corresponding loss in services. "Our budget is 6 percent less now than in 1991," he said, "yet we doubled the size of the detention center, added three new libraries, more police and added to the number of senior nutrition sites."

School officials said yesterday that they already have made substantial cuts in school construction plans. Plans for new elementary schools have been cut by more than 6 percent in both size and cost, and plans for new middle schools have been trimmed by more than 10 percent, Dr. Cousin said.

"It's going to have serious ramifications for us, whether we defer new schools or try to shrink them," said board member Stephen Bounds. "We also will have to look at buying more [portable classrooms] or maybe even double shifts. There are all kinds of things that we might have to do, and none of them are particularly attractive."

This year, the only recourse left for school officials is to look to the County Council for relief.

The council can restore what the executive cut from the school request but cannot increase it. To give the school board all of its request, the council must cut elsewhere, raise taxes or do a little of both.

In past years, the council has restored at least some of the money cut by the executive. But this year may be different.

County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, doubts the council will alter what Mr. Ecker has proposed. "I think the school system is going to have to bite the bullet," he said. The executive has "scraped together the most difficult budget in nine years," he said. "It is well thought out. There is no hard pressure in the council for a tax increase."

If the council chose to raise taxes to restore the $9.4 million Mr. Ecker cut from the schools' capital budget request, it would have to increase the county property tax rate 14 cents. That would mean an increase of about $101 more next year for the owner of a $180,000 home. The property rate is now $2.59 per $100 of assessed value.

State school aid

School officials are particularly vexed that Mr. Ecker expects treceive more school construction money from the state but does not intend to use that extra aid to increase the school system's budget above what he recommended yesterday.

"I thought that the light at the end of the tunnel was construction money from the state to supplement the county budget," Ms. Cook said. "That light has now been extinguished because the money will be used to supplant the county budget instead of supplement it."

Moreover, if the county uses all of the state construction money to reduce its own spending on new schools, the state board might be more reluctant in the future to grant money to Howard County, she said.

Water for Marriottsville

As for the rest of the capital budget, Mr. Ecker stressed the need to supply water to residents near the county's contaminated landfill as the major reason for the huge increase in this year's capital budget request.

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