Ecker to make choice on revenue He vows Feb. action on trash pickup fee or raising property tax

'Faced with hard reality'

Executive's speech to chamber echoes panel's suggestions

January 12, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he will charge residents for trash pickups or raise their property taxes.

Mr. Ecker made the remarks -- his strongest statement so far on the prospects for a tax increase next fiscal year -- during a Howard County Chamber of Commerce lunch.

One chamber member -- David Carney, also the vice chairman of the Howard County Economic Development Authority -- said in an interview later that a property tax increase could be "stifling" to local business.

Mr. Ecker said he will decide between initiating trash pickup fees or raising taxes early next month. But Mr. Carney speculated that Mr. Ecker might be merely floating "a test balloon" to gauge the reaction of the Howard business community.

In his remarks, the county executive echoed recommendations released Wednesday by a 16-member Spending Affordability Advisory Committee, which said that county revenue is not keeping pace with Howard's population growth and residents' demands for government services.

"We are faced with hard reality, and I am prepared to make the tough choice," Mr. Ecker told the group of about 200 people.

The county's current property tax rate is $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, meaning about $1,554 in annual property taxes for a home with a $150,000 market value. Businesses pay the same rate.

A property tax increase -- for the 1997 fiscal year beginning in July -- would be the first since 1991, Mr. Ecker's first year in office, when the rate was raised by 14 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Alternately, the Ecker administration has been considering since last fall initiating fees for picking up residents' trash -- starting at $100 a household per year for one bag of trash a week, with added charges for more bags.

The proposal drew widespread ire in several community hearings -- raising the prospect that Mr. Ecker might reject it in favor of raising property taxes. Businesses would not pay the trash fees.

The county executive's statements yesterday were part of his sixth annual "state of the county" speech, which he peppered with snow removal updates and calls for positive thinking among county business people and government workers.

"There is an old Ethiopian proverb, 'When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion,'" Mr. Ecker told the group.

Mr. Ecker said he didn't know how large a possible property tax increase might be. "We're still looking at it," he said.

Asked afterward how he gauged the reaction of his business-oriented audience, Mr. Ecker said: "They probably don't like it." But he said Howard has to get more revenue.

The county's total budget this fiscal year is $329 million. The county needs $13 million more for education, debt service and trash pickup next fiscal year, he said, far more than its projected revenue increase of about $9 million.

Last fall, Mr. Ecker launched an ambitious cost-cutting plan to slash current government spending on everything but schools and debt by 12 percent over 2 1/2 years. But he plans to plow much of that savings back into new spending for schools and public safety.

Yesterday, Mr. Ecker also endorsed the spending affordability committee's recommendations for increasing certain fees paid to the government. He would like to charge residents for false burglar alarms, which he said consume 20 percent of police time.

And he is considering charging residents for ambulance service, something he has always been reluctant to do.

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