$358 Million Budget Plan Is Proposed

Ecker Blueprint Would Pay For 22 More Police Officers

Tax Rate Would Not Change

Most County Workers Would Get Raises Under 1998 Plan

April 22, 1997|By Craig Timberg and Howard Libit | Craig Timberg and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed a $358 million budget yesterday that would freeze the tax rate, add 22 police officers and set aside millions of dollars to reward nearly every county employee -- including teachers -- with raises.

The proposed budget -- raising county spending 6.5 percent for the fiscal year starting July 1 -- reflects the growing prosperity of Howard County, which boasts falling unemployment and rising revenues.

It also reads like a political platform for Ecker, a Republican launching a candidacy for governor based on his record in Howard County.

At a 2 p.m. news conference, Ecker announced his budgetary priorities -- low taxes, good schools, public safety. At 3 p.m, he went on a WCBM-AM radio talk show to tout the same issues in his campaign against 1994 Republican nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

"I'm not worried about the next election," Ecker said at the news conference. "I'm worried about the next generation."

His proposed budget now goes to the County Council for review, beginning with a briefing by Ecker tomorrownight. The council has the power to change the budget before giving its final approval in late May, but major changes are unlikely.

Highlights of Ecker's proposal include:

The property tax rate, last increased in 1991, would stay at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value. But housing assessments have risen an average of 2 percent around the county, meaning higher taxes for some. The county income tax would remain at 50 percent of the state rate.

Howard schools would receive $202 million -- more than 56 percent of the county budget -- to pay for operations and debt service on a decade-long school construction boom. The amount is enough to add 258 school employees -- bringing the total to 4,841 -- to handle a student enrollment expected to increase for several more years. Most school employees would get raises of at least 3.5 percent.

The county recycling program would get a $1.3 million infusion of cash. In the fickle market for recycled paper, bottles, cans and yard waste, costs have climbed so high that it is now cheaper for the county to send trash to a landfill than recycle it. But Ecker defended the spending, saying, "It appears it would be cheaper to bury it, but it's better environmentally to recycle it."

About $3.4 million would pay for changes in hours, classifications and pay scale resulting from a sweeping study of the county's personnel system. Under the changes, the county's nonschool employees would get raises of at least $600 as they switch to a new salary scale. All employees working 35-hour weeks -- including virtually all managers, supervisors and department heads -- would go to 40-hour weeks and be paid for the difference; each would get minimum raises of 14 percent.

Beginning in January, the county police force of 327 officers would grow by 22 officers, enough to create two new round-the-clock patrol beats while increasing staffing for some units.

The Department of Fire and Rescue Services would grow by 20 firefighters. This is the second year of a three-year plan to add a total of 60 firefighters.

Howard Community College would get all $11.4 million it requested for operations and debt service, a 4.4 percent increase. The money would pay for raises for college staff members and the hiring of two full-time faculty members. The new faculty members would ensure that half of the college's classes will be taught by full-time faculty -- the minimum ratio required by the state.

The county would begin fining motorists who drive through red lights at the two Columbia intersections installed with cameras. The County Council would need to approve this program, but Ecker budgeted $200,000 to begin it and perhaps add two more cameras. He predicted annual revenues as high as $1 million from fines but said, "We hope we don't collect a penny. We hope everybody obeys every traffic law."

As always, the largest chunk of the county's budget is headed to Howard schools. And though Ecker cut the school board's request, local schools' officials praised his proposed operating budget.

Ecker's proposal would increase the county's contribution to Howard schools operating budget by $7.2 million, or 4 percent. Combined with state and other money, the total schools operating budget would increase by $13.3 million, to $253.4 million next year.

"They will have plenty of funding to hire the personnel they need to have, open new buildings and provide for negotiated pay increases," Ecker said.

Ecker's proposal is $1.3 million less than what the school board requested, but it's $800,000 higher than "maintenance of effort," the state-mandated minimum increase based on a projected enrollment increase for the county of more than 1,600 students.

Overall, Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey was pleased. "I realize the difficult balancing act that he is up against," Hickey said of Ecker. "I think $800,000 above maintenance of effort deserves recognition and appreciation."

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