For Howard County residents, who have taken for granted the quality services that come with affluence, the recession has forced a collective grappling with priorities.
Facing a projected deficit of $18 million, County Executive Charles Ecker has asked all regular government departments to make cuts of about 16 percent in their budgets for next year. With inflation taken into account, that amounts to real cuts of more than 20 percent, virtually across the board. As many as 200 county employees could be laid off, and certainly, the level of services will decline. More than that, Ecker is making no promises that he won't request a tax increase as well, albeit a small one.
At this point, there are few alternatives. The county floated the idea of a lodging tax early in the General Assembly session, but lawmakers shot it down. It might push for a phone or utility tax, but nickel-and-diming it won't suffice. The larger question now is whether the pending sacrifices, on the part of county employees and residents, are necessary at all. At $2.45, Howard's tax rate is one of the lowest in the Baltimore-Washington region. And its homeowners are some of the wealthiest.
The issue is really more philosophical than fiscal: Is it preferable to have a very small tax increase, or none at all, and live with substantially reduced services, or are Howard Countians willing to pay the price to remain in the forefront on education, social programs and quality services?