Howard County executive proposes 16 percent spending cut

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he is trying to head off a taxpayer's revolt by proposing a 16 percent cut in government spending that could lead to the layoff of 200 employees.

"I don't want it to happen here like it has in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where there are limits on what local governments can raise," said Mr. Ecker, a Republican who won an upset victory in November.


"Prince George's County had TRIM, and it took years to recover. I want to keep the tax revolution from coming to Howard County," he said at a news conference he called to release departmental budget requests showing the impacts of the proposed cuts.

In discussing the financial crisis, Mr. Ecker placed the blame yesterday on the slumping economy. But in a more partisan setting, he has suggested the culprits are his Democratic predecessor, Elizabeth Bobo, and the former County Council.


During a Feb. 17 speech to fellow Republicans, Mr. Ecker said, "We cannot continue on the road followed by my predecessor and the former council. They had a 'spend it now, don't worry about tomorrow attitude.' "

He said Ms. Bobo left the county "a whopping deficit -- yes, the shortfall in revenue will probably hit $20 million. The deficit this year is bad, but next year's financial outlook is even worse because of the poor budgeting and fiscal practices of my predecessor."

Ms. Bobo, who was appointed deputy secretary of the state Department of Human Resources by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, brushed off the criticism.

"It is clear to anyone we are in an economic slump around the country which is affecting revenues," she said. "I would rather look at high bond ratings the county has attained rather than his political comments."

The former executive said she would not have proposed large-scale layoffs had she been re-elected, but she declined to give specifics on what she would have done. "I am not going to try and second-guess what he is doing," Ms. Bobo said.

The scaled-down budget requests released yesterday included proposals for sharp cuts in health and public safety, as department heads had predicted when Mr. Ecker proposed the 16 percent spending cut.

The requests call for:

* Eliminating 55 Police Department positions, all but five of which are now filled. Chief James Robey said 42 officer positions would have to be trimmed.


If the cuts are made, the chief said there would be delays in answering non-emergency calls and a "prioritizing of calls for police services." Training would be reduced and property damage auto collisions would not be investigated.

* Eliminating 36 positions in the health department, 24 of which are now vacant. Health education programs would be curtailed, home health services would be cut in half, addiction counseling for county jail inmates would be limited, inspection of food facilities would be cut in half and the environmental health unit would no longer join state officials in responding to spills of hazardous materials and ground water pollution.

* Eliminating six central office jobs in the fire department, five of which are now staffed. The department also would reduce its fire safety inspections by a third and defer plans for a training academy for recruits.

* Eliminating 16 positions in the department of corrections, two of which are now vacant. The department would have to decrease its staffing at the jail below state-mandated levels, close the minimum security modular units housing work-release prisoners, cancel security for volunteer and treatment programs and reduce the number of rounds by security officers.

Mr. Ecker said the proposed cuts represent a "worst-case scenario," reflecting a 16 percent budget cut that would trim the current $113 operating budget by $18 million.

In addition, Mr. Ecker said he will be starting off next year with an $18 million deficit that must be made up.


A public hearing on the budget reduction proposals is set for 7:30 p.m. March 6 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.