Howard budget proposal increases spending for schools, abandons plan to cut property tax

April 23, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

Avoiding a showdown with local and state education officials, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker plans to give Howard schools all the money they requested for the next fiscal year, under the proposed 1997 operating budget released yesterday.

The $336.5 million spending plan -- which does not include a proposed $125 per household trash fee -- also would provide more money for garbage collection and debt payments, while making cuts to parks, social services, court systems and most county departments.

And the proposal scraps a 4-cent property tax cut Mr. Ecker had floated in January as part of his proposed trash policy.

But the modest proposed 2.4 percent spending increase actually is closer to 5 percent when an estimated $8 million in revenue from the trash fee is factored in.

That appears to be the second-largest proposed increase in the Baltimore region, behind Harford County's 9.4 percent increase, according to county officials interviewed yesterday.

Budgets throughout the area are not final, though, because legislative bodies in each county still must approve them.

In Howard last night, reaction from County Council members and school officials was positive, an indication that this year's budget process will be less contentious than in previous years.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican from western Howard, said Mr. Ecker was able to make cuts while finding new money for schools and garbage disposal.

"I thought he worked the loaves and fishes deal," Mr. Feaga said, referring to the New Testament story in which Jesus turned a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food for thousands of people.

"I'm very happy," said school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "He gave us what we asked for. I know it wasn't easy to do but he did what he should have done."

School officials had requested an extra $6.6 million for day-to-day operations to keep pace with enrollment growth. Had Mr. Ecker not granted the request, the county would have lost $2.8 million in "maintenance of effort" funds from the state.

In March, Mr. Ecker had said he was "90 percent" certain he could not provide the $6.6 million. But by scrapping the 4-cent property tax cut, he said, he was able to come up with the money for schools.

The proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 now must be approved by the five-member County Council. Hearings begin next month with council work sessions to follow. Mr. Ecker predicted smooth sailing.

The Republican county executive also acknowledged yesterday that his proposed property tax cut did not amount to a substantial amount of money compared to the rest of the budget.

"The 4-cent reduction was more of a token," Mr. Ecker said.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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