Ecker's deja vu Howard County: Unfortunately, 1995 felt like old times for Executive Charles Ecker.

January 04, 1996

ONE YEAR into his second term as Howard County executive, Charles I. Ecker is experiencing much the same dilemma he faced upon taking office in 1991. Now as then, his attention has been drawn to the county's financial problems.

At this juncture, county officials project a $4 million shortfall in local income and property tax revenues. In 1991, a larger shortfall prompted Mr. Ecker to lay off 40 workers; half of them were later hired back in other jobs. Whether layoffs occur again is an open question, and Mr. Ecker acknowledges the possibility. But first he wants to offer 197 workers a buyout with the hope that about a quarter of them (47) will accept. It's a tall order because a similar buyout in 1992 failed to attract even half that target; Councilman Charles C. Feaga predicts the county won't even get 30 takers.

In one sense, Mr. Ecker marked 1995 by taking a tough stand on curtailing the county's budget by 12 percent over four years. His benchmark represents an attempt at serious, long-term strategic planning, something for which he has rarely shown an inclination in the past. But he has done an admirable job of communicating to the public the difficulties the county faces, including the unavoidable financial demands of a growing school system and a worsening solid waste problem.

There are signs that Mr. Ecker may shift on some of his positions if his attempts at cutbacks don't bear fruit. Although earlier in the year he was adamant that he would not propose a property tax increase, he now says he might consider one. He also acknowledges the possibility of layoffs.

Priming the pump of the county's economy may be another daunting task for Mr. Ecker. After several years in which home construction provided the fuel for Howard's engine, retail has now become the hottest growth sector.

The county's goal is to diversify its portfolio, encouraging manufacturing and high-tech businesses. The results so far have been mixed; the county is still smarting from the loss of a Coca-Cola bottling plant that was expected to be built off U.S. 1. Howard remains one of Maryland's richest, most diverse counties and is well-positioned in the middle of the corridor. That will always be a plus for the executive, whatever problems crop ** up.

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