Ecker's triple-triple Bond ratings Howard is third county, besides state, to win top grade from three firms

February 09, 1998

CHARLES I. ECKER is making a good argument that his seven years as financial steward have paid off for Howard County. Although his predecessor, Elizabeth Bobo, was executive when Howard received its first triple-A bond rating, the county now has top marks from all three major bond-rating firms.

It is the state's third local jurisdiction with that distinction. Montgomery and Baltimore counties have triple-A ratings, as does the state of Maryland. The top ratings make it less expensive for the government to borrow money for capital improvement projects.

This is good news for taxpayers whose dollars pay for roads, schools, fire stations and other major projects. The Ecker administration took quick advantage of its triple-A status and a favorable bond market to refinance $132.7 million worth of bonds at interest rates significantly lower than the already low 5.21 percent rate. The refinancing will save the county $3.43 million.

Howard County got its first triple-A rating in 1990, from Fitch Investors Service. Moody's Investors Service followed in 1996. Now Standard & Poor's has come around, recognizing the county's rosy fiscal outlook.

The county was able to achieve such high bond ratings despite having the highest per capita debt among Maryland counties. But this is an affluent jurisdiction whose residents have sufficient resources to guarantee investments and whose leaders have spent money wisely.

Mr. Ecker, Budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks, Finance Director Dale B. Neubert and County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga deserve credit for persuading the bond market of Howard's strengths during presentations last month in New York.

Mr. Wacks says officials pointed to the county's steady job growth and made the point that the county's $400 million debt came from investing in capital projects that had to be built. "Even though we have a high debt, we've used it well," he said.

As Mr. Ecker makes his bid for governor in the Republican primary, his prudent management of government finances gives him an arrow in his quiver against Ellen R. Sauerbrey, an opponent who has in the past made fiscal stewardship the main issue.

Pub Date: 2/09/98

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