Capital gains Howard County: Long-term spending plan aided by imagination and sleight-of-hand.

April 03, 1996

THE CAPITAL BUDGET released by Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker for the coming fiscal year seemed like the classic case of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full. And that didn't seem so bad, considering that the talk out of county headquarters these days would lead one to expect the glass to be three-quarters empty and one-quarter full.

Even education officials seemed accepting of the $31.5 million earmarked for school projects, out of the total $75.2 million long-range spending package. "Though we might want more, we can live with this," Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said.

The county executive showed some imagination in this budget -- and a little sleight-of-hand.

Mr. Ecker couldn't afford expensive cloverleafs to speed traffic at Route 175's congested intersections at Snowden River Parkway and at Dobbin Road. So at one-third the cost, his engineers suggested instead something called a "dispersed movement" intersection. Attempted with some success on Long Island, N.Y, it's a series of signals that divert left-turn traffic onto a side road prior to a major crossing. Basically, it removes left-turns from an intersection and places them several hundred feet away. Motorists, understandably, will have their doubts, but those who have seen the computer model make it sound like the most fascinating chip-driven scene this side of "Toy Story."

As for Mr. Ecker's sleigh-of-hand, when Howard created an excise tax to fund infrastructure five years ago, it promised to match revenue from development, 2-1. The county now can't afford the match, and wants the state legislature to waive that requirement. Opposition is scant, since residents and developers both want schools and roads. Moreover, the $20 million the county has collected does no good sitting in a pot awaiting a match that'll never come. Still, Mr. Ecker's solution feeds public cynicism about government: What would have been the county's reaction had developers begged out of their share due to the real estate climate, but still wanted the county to pony up? Mr. Ecker's request may help the county in a pinch, but it doesn't bolster confidence that government takes its promises seriously.

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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