Ecker skips budget hearing Speakers offer varied wish lists for fiscal '98 spending

December 03, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

More than 100 people spoke at a public hearing last night, hoping to persuade Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker to provide money in his annual budget for their favorite causes -- from approval of a nearly $34 million school capital budget to $25,000 for a new playground.

The only problem was that Ecker wasn't there to hear their pleas.

For the second year in a row, the executive did not attend the budget hearing, which he had arranged weeks in advance.

Last year, Ecker missed the meeting because of a death in the family. Last night, he had a prior commitment, said Raymond Wacks, the county budget administrator.

Raquel Sanudo, the county's chief administrative officer, filled in for Ecker, whose absence drew bemused remarks from audience members.

"I did find it odd," Bob Olbers said of Ecker's disappearing act. Olbers told the county officials that he wanted Ecker to veto the recommendation of a task force of residents to build a connector road through his Ellicott City neighborhood.

"I don't know where he is," Olbers said of Ecker, "but I assume that he had an important reason not to be here."

Steven Jones of Jessup, in Anne Arundel County, who requested additional funds to reseed 55 multipurpose fields in Howard, said: "Nothing surprises me anymore."

But the show rolled on, with speaker after speaker prefacing remarks with "Dr. Ecker," who Wacks said would watch a videotape of the hearing.

The hearing is unusual in that it allows residents to lobby for money even before Ecker, Wacks, and the heads of county agencies craft a budget for the 1999 fiscal year, which begins next July 1. The budget is drawn in April.

More than half of the audience implored the administration to adopt the school system's capital budget request, which includes money to build a new high school and two new middle schools and renovate some older schools.

"Our continuing growth in student population requires that we continue to build," said Stephen C. Bounds, vice chairman of the county Board of Education, taking his turn at the podium last night.

But Adriane Lapointe, PTA president at Northfield Elementary, criticized the school system for ignoring pleas from her group to upgrade a 30-year-old playground, where three of five play sets do not meet current safety specifications.

"The feedback we get is that they don't have to pay for new equipment because we're not a new school," Lapointe said. "For elementary school kids, these playgrounds count."

Others focused on roads, particularly the intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.

But there was little dispute over what the county should do about the 300-acre Smith farm along Route 175 in east Columbia: Buy it.

Said Joseph P. Merke, who chairs the Columbia Council: "This is an opportunity that will never come again. Don't let it slip through your fingers."

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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