Fiscal Surgery in Howard


After weeks of anxiety, the budget ax has finally fallen in Howard County. Executive Charles I. Ecker outlined a plan to lay off 219 of the county's 1,800 workers to help suture a $20 million revenue gap. Another 100 now-vacant job slots will go unfilled and the county executive has raised the possibility of furloughs for some workers.

The proposed 16 percent cut in Howard's non-school payroll should surprise no one. Mr. Ecker has been warning of this eventuality virtually from the day he took office. Nor should anyone be surprised at what's almost sure to come next: an increase in the property tax rate.

Howard is among Maryland's richest and fastest growing counties, yet its property tax rate is among the region's lowest. This probably explains why it hasn't been hit by the sort of tax revolt that has taken place in Montgomery, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

This also explains Mr. Ecker's reluctance to tamper with taxes. "The public has to realize the severe financial crisis we are in. We can't keep going to the taxpayers to say we need more taxes," he said. Politically, he's probably right. Still, raising property taxes could become an unavoidable option if the state, scrambling to address its own mounting deficit, cuts aid to the city and counties.

Laying off employees can lead to some savings, but at a considerable cost. Already, department heads are saying the cuts will force a reduction in services. County police claim a 16 percent budget cut would force them to fire 40 officers and mean slower response times for non-emergencies. The Public Works Department says it might have to eliminate trash pickups at apartments.

Some of this is self-serving rhetoric from officials who don't want to deal with diminished resources. But part of Howard's popularity is due to its reputation for top-flight services. Cutting too deeply into those services could deter future growth.

Another sticking point is the 6-percent pay raise due teachers next year. Mr. Ecker says he can't justify the increase but is powerless to stop it since state law mandates a minimum support level for local schools and Howard's Board of Education refuses to renege on the negotiated increase.

Some argue that education and social services should be given priority status as Mr. Ecker seeks to solve Howard's fiscal crisis. But he has opted for a more balanced, surgical approach to cost-cutting, one that doesn't hold one interest group harmless at the expense of others.

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