26-cent tax rise recommended But Ecker says he'll seek less than panel's figure


A Howard County committee is recommending a budget for next year that would require a 26-cent increase in the property tax rate, but County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he is not willing to propose that much of an increase.

Ecker, who already has conceded that a tax increase is likely, said yesterday that he would seek to add less than 26 cents to the $2.45 rate that property owners currently pay on every $100 of assessed value.

"Zero's out of the question and 26 cents is out of the question," he said when asked at a news conference how much of an increase he would propose for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

In a report released yesterday, Ecker's spending affordability committee recommended a $275 million budget, which is $13 million more than the county expects to raise with its current property tax rate. Each 1-cent addition to the tax rate would generate about $500,000, so 26 cents would be needed to make up the $13 million gap.

Ecker said some county property owners would be hurt by large tax increases, although Howard is one of the nation's 10 wealthiest counties. A lower tax rate, however, would increase the likelihood that the county would have to lay off and furlough employees to reduce spending, he said.

Ecker already has warned county employees that chances are strong that they will not receive merit, cost-of-living and longevity raises. The former deputy superintendent of county schools also said he hopes the Board of Education will renegotiate its contract with teachers. That contract would give teachers a 6 percent salary increase next year.

Ecker said he would explore the possibility of imposing new county fees or raising existing ones to help make up the shortfall, but said he is not planning to seek authorization for those measures from the General Assembly this year.

Increased fees would have a limited impact on the budgetary problems, he said.

"It's reasonable to say that the bulk of the revenues is going to come from property-tax increases," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county's budget administrator and a member of the spending-affordability committee.

The committee's report said tax increases would be necessary, but that "excessive increases" may slow the county's economic recovery.

Former State Sen. James Clark, who chaired the committee, advised Ecker to seek new county fees, including surcharges on telephone and electrical service.

Clark said the county would have to cut its spending, which the committee reported is the second highest per capita in Maryland at $2,110. Montgomery County was first at $2,320. Howard County also spends more per capita for education than any of the state's jurisdictions.

"It's a very austere recommendation," Clark said. "We think this is a balance between the difficult times we are in and not cutting services too severely."

The committee's report said Howard County's economy has not "bottomed out" and that its recovery will be slow. It recommended that county agencies submit budgets that are below levels set in the current budget. The recommended cuts are different for each agency and range up to 10 percent.

But the committee said the county's ability to maintain basic public health, safety and education would be crippled if it holds spending to the $262 million in revenues currently projected for fiscal 1992. That would be $24 million less than the $286 million in spending authorized for the current fiscal year.

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