Ecker's budget line Howard County: His formula -- deep cuts, maintain services -- will be sorely tested.

November 08, 1995

NOW THAT SOME department heads in Howard County government have vented their feelings about pending budget cuts, the time for the hard work must begin. Despite fears that a 12 percent reduction in spending by 1997 will lead to layoffs, department heads are still under orders from County Executive Charles I. Ecker to make the changes as painless as possible.

Mr. Ecker insists that cuts can be made without layoffs and with minimal reduction of service. The fact that many officials don't share his optimism, he says, is understandable. He described agency chiefs as going through a normal period of reflection that occurs in such cases. Department heads are in a period of denial and resentment, he claims, but they will soon move to acceptance and commitment.

For the public at large, Mr. Ecker will appear admirable in his insistence that department chiefs' feet be held to the fire. There appears to be little or no support in the community for a tax increase that would avoid Mr. Ecker's major cuts. And more than likely, the dire consequences predicted by department heads recently in The Sun will be read more as scare tactics than an honest assessment.

If changes and layoffs do come, it won't be the first time Mr. Ecker has taken a strong stance. In 1991, he was the first of a new crop of county executives in the region to give buy-outs to 29 employees and early retirement to another 21. As tragic as job loss is, the public may be already sensitized (or desensitized?) to the prospect, given the enormous amount of downsizing that has already occurred in the private sector.

In the area of services, Mr. Ecker faces his greatest challenge. The executive says he can meet his goal by cutting non-essential services and encouraging innovation that provides needed programs for less. But Howard countians tend to be a somewhat pampered lot, accustomed to the county's many amenities. Talk of charging a per-bag fee for trash collection or eliminating trash receptacles in public parks already hasn't sat well with many.

Still, Mr. Ecker's approach seems to be right. The level of distrust that permeates government at all levels demands that elected officials get tough. Of course, if the pain turns out to be too great, everyone will have to reassess.

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