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Howard residents, Ecker wrestle budget 1,000 crowd hearing to dissect proposals


In one of the largest public turnouts in Howard County history, more than 1,000 people -- many carrying protest signs -- crowded into an Ellicott City high school last night, most of them to express opposition to proposed cuts in county services and spending.

The line of cars heading for Mount Hebron High School stretched for more than a mile along Route 99 at the beginning of the first of two public hearings called by County Executive Charles I. Ecker to solicit comment on his proposal to cut spending by 16 percent and lay off as many as 200 county employees.

Nearly every seat was taken, there was a large standing audience, and 141 people signed up to speak -- far more than could be accommodated.

County employees voiced concerns about their jobs and working conditions; a prosecutor warned of the effects of Police Department cuts on public safety; and the elderly defended a weekday lunch program, many by waving paper plates.

Mr. Ecker told the throng that the county faces a $31 million shortfall for the fiscal 1992, which begins July 1. He said he expected to cover $18 million of that with cuts in spending and to come up with the difference through additional revenue sources -- and possibly an increased property tax.

"It is not going to be easy," Mr. Ecker said, explaining that he saw no alternative to reducing government services and increasing taxes. "I'm looking for your help to solve this financial problem."

But 69-year-old Jean Boyd offered tears. They welled up in her eyes as she stood on the stage, explaining how the daily group lunch program at an Ellicott City nutrition center had helped her stroke-disabled husband.

With her 76-year-old husband, William, at her side holding onto a walker, Mrs. Boyd said to rousing applause: "I hope the good Lord takes care of all the seniors in Howard County."

Hundreds of people wore orange stick-on tags reading "KOPS" -- an acronym for "Keep Our Police Services" -- that were handed out at the door. It was a theme drawn from threatened Police Department cuts that could reduce the 295-member force by 40 officers, as well as 10 or more clerical support positions.

"We may as well put up a neon sign to say Howard County is a place you can come and prey on the citizens," Assistant State's Attorney Jason Shapiro said, warning Mr. Ecker that cuts in police services would result in a slower response time to emergency calls.

Mr. Ecker, who had asked departments to cut budget requests by 16 percent from current spending, replied to a smattering of boos, "It's not my budget, it's what the departments have submitted."

"I don't expect you to agree with me or show me sympathy," he said, "but show me a little bit of respect."

Dale L. Hill, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association Local 86, gave Mr. Ecker petitions with what were described as 4,365 signatures of residents wanting to maintain the current level of police protection and manpower.

Mr. Ecker had a few supporters.

Mac Whittemore of Ellicott City, for example, said he felt there was

too much fat in county government and favored cuts across the board -- including the teachers, who are seeking pay raises of 6 percent.

"If we don't get the county on a sound fiscal basis, Mr. Ecker is correct that there will be a tax revolt," Mr. Whittemore declared. "I guarantee it."

Rosemary Mortimer, president of the county PTA Council, urged Mr. Ecker to "not overlook the vast number of Howard Countians who live here because of its high quality of life." She said "most citizens would support an increased tax rate" to retain services.

Others citizens spoke in support of the budgets for the library system, Howard Community College and the recreation department.

John McDowell, speaking on behalf of the Columbia Football Association children's leagues, said Mr. Ecker could cut money from the recreation department but should not cut employees. "We will pay for the upkeep of the fields if you leave the people in their jobs to care for the parks," he said.

His testimony was interrupted at 8:45 p.m. by a false fire alarm, which prompted a brief evacuation of the auditorium.

Ten-year-old April Jackson of Woodbine may have been the youngest speaker, opposing cuts in funding of the county extension service, which operates the 4-H program. A 4-H member, she told Mr. Ecker that the program "has given me the opportunity to stand here and speak to you," noting that she won 4-H awards for her public speaking.

By the end of the session late last night, dozens of would-be speakers still had not had reached the microphone. They will have another opportunity when Mr. Ecker's hearing resumes at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Mount Hebron High auditorium.

Mr. Ecker is to submit his proposed budget and property tax rate to the County Council on April 19.

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