Chuck Enigma From trash to schools, County Executive Ecker message is confusing.

March 20, 1996

FOLLOWING A FLURRY of radical, disjointed pronouncements on school choice and racetrack slot machines, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was referred to by someone as the "Gorbachev of Baltimore." With his own flurry of radical, disjointed pronouncements on trash disposal and school funding, does that make Chuck Ecker the "Kurt Schmoke of Howard County?"

If anyone has figured out Mr. Ecker's strategy, we wish we could count ourselves among them. Several weeks ago, the Howard County executive proposed higher fees and a four-bag-a-week limit on garbage collection, to promote conservation and to fund the expense of shipping waste out of county. Inexplicably, he proposed a property tax cut to accompany the trash fee, which muddied his message and also would shift a heavier financial burden from businesses and upper-income residents to middle-income homeowners.

Weeks after offering the tax cut, Mr. Ecker lamented that he was "90 percent certain" he could not afford to meet the state's minimum requirement for education spending, meaning the county would lose millions in state aid.

What is going on? His trash program normally would have been lauded as a positive step in a suburb with a checkered history on landfills. But his coupling of the program with a tax cut sent off mixed signals. Similarly confusing has been his game of hardball with the school system. His funding threat startled fellow leaders in other counties even as they were in Annapolis trying to weaken the state's mandate on local school funding.

Mr. Ecker, known as a fiscal conservative, says the money isn't there. His jurisdiction, smack in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, also straddles the best and worst economic conditions. Just granted one of the highest bond ratings in Maryland, Howard enjoys a lucrative tax base. However, it also must accommodate the most explosive growth of any of the state's larger jurisdictions. Mr. Ecker has been that rare politician the other politicians admire for his ability to make change without rancor; that only makes the recent brinkmanship all the more puzzling. Any good politician not only leads, but gives his constituents a strong sense of why they must follow his course. Lately, Mr. Ecker has not.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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