Ecker's 'record of accomplishment' Gubernatorial plans: Howard's executive is fiscal steward, but thin on innovation, jobs.

February 18, 1997

CHARLES I. ECKER is a good, honest man whose folksy talk, one-liners and moderate conservatism have won the hearts of voters and businesses alike. In seven years as Howard County executive, he has pruned public spending and services, and guided one of Maryland's wealthier jurisdictions through a rocky recession. The times demanded his restraint.

But former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley's glowing characterization of him as he seeks to establish an exploratory gubernatorial committee, co-chaired by Ms. Bentley and state Sen. Robert Neall, may face tough sledding on the campaign trail. In pledging to help her fellow Republican explore a statewide candidacy, Mrs. Bentley touted his "record of accomplishment." In truth, not a lot of paper would be needed to list Mr. Ecker's highlights in office.

In the pre-Ecker 1980s, Howard County government and the school system fattened up on all the revenue from a building boom. Leaders launched innovative programs such as a farmland preservation strategy, a prototype for Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recently proposed Rural Legacy program. A healthy proportion of property tax revenue, nearly one-quarter, flowed from business.

The recession of the early 1990s brought all that to a halt. Mr. Ecker deserves credit for holding the line when revenue growth declined. He never flinched at making hard choices, such as laying off workers.

However, he has failed to address many long-range problems. He has yet to propose a solution for waste-disposal into the next century, beyond cutting curbside pick-ups and imposing a $125 trash fee. Revenue growth remains sluggish, with commercial buildings a disturbingly low 19 percent of the real estate base. His administration is nickel-and-diming residents with an array of fees.

Economic development has not prospered as much as it has in other metropolitan counties, despite Howard's ideal geographic location. And the county's debt is the state's highest. Also, Mr. Ecker's advocacy for education has been mediocre, in spite of his background as a former teacher and school administrator.

Mr. Ecker has plenty of attributes to offer voters, but his record might not be the easy sell that Ms. Bentley believes.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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