Why Howard? Tax or fee increase?: Residents need to understand county's fiscal situation first.

January 17, 1996

HOWARD COUNTY Executive Charles I. Ecker appears bound and determined to impose some type of tax increase on county residents. If he doesn't go with a property tax hike, it seems he will at least have county residents pay by the bag to have their garbage collected.

The garbage fee may not be a bad idea. People would be paying for the type of service they want. Those who load up the trash collectors would pay accordingly, those who don't would pay less. However, the fact that residents, not business, would pay the fee make it a less equitable way to fund general government needs.

If county government is trying to deal with a budget problem, and not specifically a waste disposal one, a property tax increase might be the fairer route. A substantial portion would go to county schools. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey wants a 5 percent increase in his budget, which would bring it to $242 million. But the schools wouldn't be the only beneficiary. Mr. Ecker has pointed out other areas -- from police and fire protection to recreation -- that could use additional funds. He plans to decide by next month how to raise more revenue.

A property tax increase would be the county's second since 1991, when Mr. Ecker came into office. The rate was raised then by 14 cents to the current $2.59 per $100 of assessed value. That's a far cry from the $5.85 per $100 that property owners pay in Baltimore, but Howard County is not Baltimore. While the city still struggles, Howard remains one of Maryland's most popular places to live.

That's why if Mr. Ecker is to convince Howard countians that a tax increase is in order, he must do more than detail where the money would be spent. His jurisdiction seems an enigma: one of the state's richest, but also one of the first to announce discussion of a possible tax increase. Mr. Ecker said in his State of the County address that economic development -- and not just in retail sales -- is the key to Howard's future. Before he asks for a tax increase he must explain why he is apparently convinced that the county is incapable of the type of economic development that would boost revenues without a tax hike. If he thinks county residents won't support that type of development, he should say so. Put the blame for a tax increase where it belongs.

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