Ecker agrees to schools' fund request Proposed budget also abandons idea to cut property tax

Showdown avoided

Plan reduces outlays for social services, parks, court systems

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

Avoiding a possible showdown, 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 Testa-ment 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.

"If I was the County Council, I'd even cancel the work sessions," Mr. Ecker joked. "There's nothing to talk about."

But a lot of residents might want to talk about the proposed $125 trash fee and the scrapping of the 4-cent property tax cut, both of which are tied to Mr. Ecker's proposed waste policy designed to address skyrocketing trash disposal costs.

Along with the trash fee, the county executive also is proposing a four-container weekly limit on trash pickups and wants to field-test an aggressive "pay-by-the-pound" collection system in a small part of the county.

During recent public hearings on the trash policy, residents on both sides of the issue have criticized Mr. Ecker. Some said he is being too restrictive; some said he is not doing enough to encourage recycling.

Yesterday, Mr. Ecker acknowledged that his proposed property tax cut did not amount to a substantial amount of money compared with the rest of the budget.

"The 4-cent reduction was more of a token," the Republican county executive said.

Mr. Ecker added that he could not justify such a cut while not fully funding the education request.

Members of the County Council applauded the proposed budget last night.

"It's a typical Chuck Ecker masterpiece," said council chairman Darrel Drown, a Republican from Ellicott City.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, said he was pleased that schools would be fully funded. But he added, "I haven't had time to analyze" the budget.

In addition to the $6.6 million in additional day-to-day funding for the schools, Mr. Ecker also has budgeted an additional $2.6 million in debt service payments for school projects and an additional $1 million in spending for computers.

Overall, the proposed budget is sometimes difficult to compare with the current budget because of the trash fee and restructuring in county agencies.

For example, the amount in the proposed budget funded primarily through property taxes and income taxes would increase by only 2.4 percent -- to $336.5 million from $328.5 million.

That would be smaller growth than in previous years.

But when the new trash fee is factored in the growth in spending jumps to 4.7 percent, according to county figures.

As for agency restructuring, the Department of General Services is being dissolved. As its functions are absorbed by Public Works, County Administration and the new Department of Technology, those individual agencies' budgets grow.

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