Ecker's Budget Miracle

Howard County: With Help From Overflowing Rainy Day Fund, Ecker Avoids Budget Trouble.

April 23, 1997

THE COUNTY'S fiscal picture is brighter than it seemed just a few weeks ago, when the chief executive's spending affordability committee recommended a tax hike or boosting user fees to stave off budgetary plight. It was one of two advisory panels that urged County Executive Charles I. Ecker to raise more revenue.

But residents who feared higher real estate and income taxes have no reason to worry after all. Mr. Ecker's proposed budget for fiscal 1998 would provide enough money to boost salaries for county employees, hire additional police and go beyond the minimum level of state-mandated spending for education -- without a tax hike.

All of this is possible because of Howard's rainy day fund. Since 1993, a trickle of money into this reserve account has turned into a flood. There is now an "excess surplus," in the lexicon of budget officials.

The pot has reached $23 million, and is nearing the maximum amount allowed by county law. So the county plans to use $4 million that ordinarily would go into the fund to pay the cost of running the government. The reserve lets Mr. Ecker increase next year's budget by $21 million. The county will gain from higher property assessments.

Among the winners in the budget proposal are schools, the community college, recreation, fire and police. We are delighted to see support for these areas. Mr. Ecker hesitated in the past before meeting the state requirement to maintain per-pupil spending levels. Although his proposal is less than the school board requested, it is $800,000 higher than the state mandates. Mr. Ecker, a former associate superintendent of schools, wants to hire 258 school employees to handle 1,600 new students and give teachers a much-deserved raise.

There also is money to allow the public works department to begin addressing storm water management needs. And nearly 11 percent of the budget would go toward servicing the state's highest per capita debt.

Did Mr. Ecker work a miracle? Did his advisory panels exaggerate the severity of the county's problems? Regardless of the answer to those questions, residents should be pleased that the executive is holding the line on taxes for a seventh year.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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