A pragmatic capital budget Howard County: More state aid may come, but Ecker must be ready if it doesn't.

April 03, 1997

CHARLES I. ECKER has drafted a pragmatic capital budget, which acknowledges the troubling reality that Howard County's per-capita debt is the highest among county governments in Maryland.

Now, the county executive needs state money to protect him and school officials from the heat they are likely to face from residents who are certain to complain if their road or school projects are eliminated.

Fiscal constraints necessitated some cuts in school spending. The $92.7 million capital plan for fiscal year 1998, which begins July 1, would eliminate funding for a new middle school and would provide only half the money for three highway interchanges. The budget pushes the county's debt to $387 million; the $6 million plan exceeds by $1 million the recommendation of county government's spending affordability committee.

Mr. Ecker is hoping the state will rescue him from the political fallout that a streamlined budget can have on a county where growth still stresses school capacity and roads, and where expectations for services remain high.

The executive has frustrated east Columbia residents by changing his position several times on plans to build a highway interchange at Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.

He initially indicated that the county would build the interchange to accommodate an increase in traffic from the new Columbia Crossing shopping center.

He then infuriated residents by saying he would not build the interchange, and later tried to assuage them by pledging to pay half the cost. A State Highway Administration spokeswoman told reporters that a decision on funding is "imminent."

But another problem could come if the state fails to provide more than the $4.2 million in school aid it already has approved for Howard.

If additional state money does not come, Mr. Ecker and school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey must decide whether to delay construction of a middle school planned for Ellicott City's Ilchester area or one planned for Fulton.

Help from the state would mean that Mr. Ecker would not have to make the tough decisions on interchanges and school construction.

Indeed, it could mean the difference between budgetary peace and public hostility.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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