Surplus, schools and sanitation Howard County: $12 million is a short-term bonus, not a permanent cure for budget.

January 12, 1998

LIKE 60-DEGREE January days in Maryland, balanced budgets at all levels of government have come as a pleasant change from the norm. The Congressional Budget Office projects a future of surpluses for the federal government. Maryland is collecting $260 million more than it plans to spend. And, a $12 million surplus is burning a hole in the pockets of Howard County officialdom.

The improved fiscal outlook is good news. But budget decisions can be almost as vexing when there is too much cash as when there is too little. Howard County can spend its surplus only on one-time expenses, but some view the $12 million balance as sure indication that the county does not need all the cash it collects. Councilman Dennis M. Schrader, a contender for county executive this year, wants to give back more than $8 million to taxpayers annually by eliminating the county's 2-year-old fee for trash collection.

A Republican, Mr. Schrader voted for the trash levy 20 months ago. The fiscal outlook is better now, but his proposal to eliminate the $2.40 weekly fee for homeowners seems designed to win votes against his Republican opponent, Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga.

The surplus is due largely to taxes on capital gains from a bullish stock market. If the market sags and the county experiences a shortfall in the future, however, the next county executive might have to reintroduce the trash fee.

Others see the surplus as a rainbow at the end of a long fiscal storm. County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey is going after the pot of gold by seeking the largest dollar increase in the school system's history. He wants $13.5 million more from the county in fiscal year 1999 than his system is receiving this year.

Dr. Hickey is right that schools sacrificed during tough years. County Executive Charles I. Ecker cannot argue this time that he has barely enough to satisfy a state-mandated minimum for education spending. But the superintendent's preliminary request is unrealistic when one considers that deserved teacher salary increases have not yet been factored in.

Mr. Ecker has more flexibility than in the past. But to draft a workable budget, he must put aside politics and resist cries to put long-term reliance on this year's surplus.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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