Ecker vows to wage fight for trash tax State of the County speech puts focus on his successes

'I'm upbeat, optimistic'

200 business leaders turn out for tradition he started in 1991

January 23, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

In a speech that looked back more than ahead, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker yesterday trumpeted seven years of accomplishments and vowed to keep the trash tax in his final State of the County address.

Ecker, a Republican who must step down when his second term ends in December, did not talk about his campaign for governor, other than a vague reference to changing his address so he could "take up water sports."

But for an official who often seems uneasy making speeches, Ecker was relaxed and folksy in what amounted to a valedictory address to the Howard County Chamber of Commerce -- among his most loyal supporters.

"The state of the county can be summed up in one word -- great," he said. "I'm upbeat, optimistic, almost giddy about the future."

The speech, given over lunch at the Columbia Inn, included several key points:

Ecker intends to fight an effort by Councilman Dennis R. Schrader to repeal the $125 trash tax paid by all county homeowners. It was Ecker's strongest comment to date on that issue.

All other local taxes, including the fire tax, which some officials want increased, will remain unchanged in the coming year.

County revenues are expected to grow by $16 million in the fiscal year beginning in July, the strongest revenue growth of Ecker's administration.

Ecker plans to use all of the county's surplus -- $13 million last year and $7 million expected for this year -- for one-time capital projects, not day-to-day program costs.

The State of the County address -- delivered each January before a Chamber of Commerce audience -- has been a tradition since the beginning of Ecker's administration in 1991, when Howard and the nation were deep in recession.

He inherited a $23 million revenue shortfall, leading him to cut 12 percent of all county jobs, furlough all county employees for a week and raise property taxes 6 percent. Ecker's handling of the crisis is widely regarded as the top accomplishment of his administration.

A rosy picture

In yesterday's address, Ecker talked of those fiscal problems, but he spent most of the speech recounting successes and painting a rosy picture of the county's condition.

Howard has spent $172 million on school construction, created a $24 million "rainy day fund" and created nearly 20,000 jobs -- the most in the state -- during Ecker's administration.

The county also has racked up the highest per-capita debt in the state, though Ecker called the debt "manageable."

The crowd of about 200 business leaders greeted Ecker warmly, laughed at his jokes and gave him a standing ovation when he finished speaking.

'No agenda'

But Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, said after the speech, "I guess Ecker has set no agenda for the year. I didn't hear one."

Ecker did focus on one fight: the trash tax.

In 1996, he won County Council approval to create the $125 trash tax -- his only tax increase since 1991. But Schrader, a Republican running for Ecker's job, has proposed repealing the trash tax now that the county is generating surpluses.

"Now that we've got past the financial crisis, it seems to me it would be a good idea to give some [tax] relief before we put more things into the budget," Schrader reiterated yesterday.

On the trash tax

In his speech, Ecker said the trash tax has generated needed revenue, encouraged recycling and removed an unfair burden from businesses, which must contract privately for trash collection.

Afterward, he promised to fight to keep the trash tax, which raises about $8.4 million a year. Four of five council members would have to vote to kill the tax to override Ecker's objections.

"It's going to be in my budget," Ecker said. "They can take it out if they want to."

The tone of the speech was lighter.

Ecker ended with a reference to Robert Fulghum's book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

One "thing you learn in kindergarten is to leave a place better than you found it," Ecker said. "I have."

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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