Ecker's debt cloud Howard County: Advisers' calls for tax or fee increase come at a bad time for executive.

February 13, 1997

COULD THERE HAVE BEEN a worse time for Charles I. Ecker to receive the fiscal advice he's hearing these days?

The Howard County executive is mulling a campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination as a social moderate and strong fiscal watchdog. But over the last three weeks, two teams of advisers have suggested that he diverge from a straight-and-narrow conservative path and raise taxes or increase fees, in part to relieve some of the county's ponderous debt burden.

The most recent call for higher taxes comes from the county's Spending Affordability Advisory Committee, a panel Mr. Ecker himself created to help begin the annual budget process.

The 17-member group of business people and county finance officials clearly was worried, if not alarmed, by Howard's mounting debt.

Two of the four measurements it uses to determine whether borrowing is within acceptable limits caused concern. One measurement, per capita debt, was $1,623, which exceeds the recommended $1,200 limit. Another barometer, the percentage of debt service as compared with county revenue, was climbing toward the 12 percent limit.

Mr. Ecker has patterned himself after former President Ronald Reagan: folksy, tough, conservative. Now he shares the former president's legacy on high debt, too.

Costs that placed the county into this hole were unavoidable. Howard has spent to build and equip its school system, one of the state's fastest growing. It also must pay the costs of federally mandated improvements to the storm water management system and work to seal old landfills. Fortunately, the county has maintained high bond ratings, but increasing amounts going toward these capital projects leave less for other services. The spending committee concluded that if government already is bone-thin, Mr. Ecker must raise taxes or fees.

Property taxes fluctuated throughout the 1980s; Mr. Ecker raised the rate by 14 cents in 1991 to $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, where it still remains.

But having stated boldly that he will not raise taxes and fees, the executive who would be governor must decide whether to ignore his local financial advisers or risk losing stature as a fiscal conservative for a statewide run.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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