Ecker's bold stance on trash tax Executive is right to put fiscal picture above politics.

January 26, 1998

GIVE CHARLES I. ECKER credit for standing by his tax. The Howard County executive, who is challenging tax-cutter Ellen R. Sauerbrey for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said last week he would retain the county's $125 trash-collection fee in his next budget despite a County Council member's call to eliminate it.

The decision comes with some political risk. A Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research poll shows Mr. Ecker far behind Mrs. Sauerbrey. He stood to gain some brownie points among GOP voters by moving to eliminate this fee he created two years ago.

Indeed, it would have been easy for him to erase the tax to raise his gubernatorial stock and let the chips fall on his successor.

Then-County Executive J. Hugh Nichols followed that route in 1986 to puff up a short-lived bid for governor. He cut the property tax rate a whopping 22 cents with no concern for the impact down the road.

With the highest per-capita debt in Maryland, high-growth Howard County, it could be argued, is still paying for that act.

Mr. Ecker imposed the trash fee to close a budget shortfall and to encourage recycling by limiting the number of garbage bags households could set curbside. It has worked: Families are putting out less trash and recycling more.

The trash fee generates about $8.4 million a year. Councilman Dennis M. Schrader, who is running for the seat Mr. Ecker is vacating, seeks to eliminate the fee. Though he voted in favor of it less than two years ago, Mr. Schrader says the county's $13 million surplus indicates it's no longer needed.

The surplus is good, but it's unwise to build long-term fiscal policy on short-term gains. Using surplus money to pay for one-time expenses will keep Howard from having to go deep in debt to pay for these items later.

Mr. Ecker refused to take a bigger step and propose an equitable fire tax. Western Howard countians pay a lower rate than their neighbors in the east. That senseless imbalance should end.

On the trash tax, however, Mr. Ecker refused to put personal gain ahead of the county's needs. His successor -- even if it turns out to be Mr. Schrader -- will appreciate his prudence.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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