Do Howard's poor have voice? Legal Aid: Council needs to restore $50,000 in budget to open a branch closed three years ago.

May 26, 1998

ANYBODY who watched the Howard County Council agonize over which budget cuts to make to improve funding for schools knows the panel did not go about its task frivolously. But to accept the reductions that the council made as the best it could do would be naive.

Howard's schools got more money because parents, students and teachers rightly cried out for it. No voices were raised, however, when the council cut $50,000 from the budget for a Legal Aid office.

The council will take its final vote on the budget today. If it adheres to the Legal Aid decision, it will give credence to criticism of affluent Howard County as not caring enough about the poor.

Legal Aid provides legal advice and attorney representation to families who cannot afford to pay a lawyer. Most of these cases concern domestic disputes, tenants' complaints against landlords, applications for social-service benefits or debt judgments.

The Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland says more than 8,000 Howard County residents are eligible for its services. But the closest offices available are in Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

Howard had a Legal Aid office from 1991 until 1995, when federal funding reductions caused the state bureau to close it. The bureau says it will reopen a Howard office if the county kicks in $50,000.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker has said he wants to restore Legal Aid service in Howard.

There ought to be some way to do that without upsetting the council's agreement to give more money to the schools.

The county's economy is so robust that the council has agreed with Mr. Ecker to lower the "piggyback" income tax rate. In that context, the $50,000 needed to open a Legal Aid office is peanuts in a $397 million operating budget.

There haven't been loud demonstrations and petition drives to get the Legal Aid office funded. But that doesn't mean there aren't poor people in the county who need the assistance Legal Aid can provide. The council shouldn't act as if they don't exist.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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