Howard Co., Baltimore tighten belts a notch Ecker foresees increase in the property tax rate even with spending cuts


Proclaiming a "fiscal emergency" in one of the nation's richest counties, the Howard County executive said yesterday that he will have to raise taxes next year even though he intends to cut government spending by 10 percent and hold the line on budgets for schools, libraries and the community college.

Executive Charles I. Ecker would not say how much higher the property tax rate will be for the fiscal year that starts July 1, but he noted that simply matching the current year's $286.4 million budget would require a 64-cent increase in the tax rate, $2.49 for each $100 of assessed value.

"I will say that this executive will not recommend a 64-cent property tax hike," said Mr. Ecker, a Republican who took office last month, adding that the fiscal 1992 budget probably would be $270 million or less.

But even financing a trimmed-back budget could translate into a property tax rate increase of at least 20 cents, said one official.

In addition to the spending constraints -- described by school officials as "catastrophic" -- Mr. Ecker said he may cut trash collection from twice to once a week and will press for a change in local law to eliminate merit pay and longevity bonuses for county employees next year, in hopes of averting layoffs.

He said the county also is considering raising fees for dumping at the county landfill and for processing plans for new development and recreational programs, along with his previously announced plan to seek a 5 percent hotel and motel tax.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who has submitted a request for a 12 percent spending increase that amounts to $17 million, said a status quo budget would be "educationally catastrophic" and could force him to lay off teachers or staff.

"We can't absorb a $17 million cut and still respond to an anticipated growth of 1,100 students and open two new schools," he said. "It is educationally catastrophic for a system which received a state report card showing us on top of other school systems because of the resources we put into the program. Once you make cuts of this magnitude, you are in a downhill slide."

Even if the cuts have to be made, Mr. Hickey said, he will recommend that the Board of Education honor the 6 percent pay raise -- carrying a price tag of $5 million -- negotiated with the association representing 2,300 teachers and professional staff members.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, called the budget situation the worst he has seen in nine years on the council. He said he feared that he and his colleagues will be put in the difficult position of having to decide whether to restore cuts Mr. Ecker makes in the education budget and to increase the tax rate.

Marvin Thomas, director of the county library system, said freezing his budget could delay the opening of the Elkridge branch, scheduled for March 1992. He was seeking a 9 percent increase in the $6.8 million library budget, or about $612,000 more.

"It is a calamity because the executive is asking us to reduce spending when we are scheduled to open the Elkridge branch as well as a branch in Savage in mid-April," Mr. Thomas said. "We plan to undertake a donation drive to raise money for adding materials."

Lynn Coleman, comptroller at Howard Community College, said the proposal by Mr. Ecker "comes at a bad time during a recession. Typically, our enrollment goes up because jobless persons come here for retraining."

The community college has a $16 million operating budget, with $7 million of that coming from the county.

Mr. Ecker said that while he is asking the school system, community college and library to maintain "a status quo budget" next year, there is a possibility that "the worst case may require up to a 10 percent reduction in [their] expenditures."

The schools, library and community college account for 55 percent of the county's operating funds.

"I am going to hold firm," Mr. Ecker said, anticipating significant community pressure to restore money that is cut. "I will bring my sleeping bag to the budget hearings. I know some of the cuts will be devastating, but we have to do it."

The only exceptions to the 10 percent cuts in operating expenses will be $800,000 for an expanded recycling program and 5 percent increases for non-profit agencies receiving grants from the county to help people with low incomes.

After a decade of booming development that left the county flush with money, Howard finds itself in a financial bind because the downturn in the economy sharply reduced revenue from income tax and development-related fees, according to the county budget officer, Raymond S. Wacks.

The county will end this fiscal year without a surplus and in fact faces belt-tightening over a $18 million shortfall in revenue.

Mr. Ecker also he plans to create a "rainy day" fund that would be built up over several years and help cushion against future economic downturns. He is proposing $1 million for the fund in the coming year.

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