Howard council approves budget raising '92 taxes


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, pilloried by critics for laying off employees, raising taxes and withholding pay raises, savored the moment yesterday as the County Council passed a budget reflecting his conservative blueprint for county government.

"I feel pleased by the council action," said Mr. Ecker, a Republican who has had a rocky six months in office. "The council did approve a budget pretty much as I submitted. I did what I had to do for the long run, and time will prove that."

The council approved the $270.3 million package for the 1992 fiscal year, including a 14-cent property tax increase that raises the rate to $2.59 per $100 of assessed value, after making only minor changes in Mr. Ecker's controversial proposal.

The council deleted the executive's $1 million "rainy day" fund and $109,000 from his recommended $1.5 million contingency fund and shifted $1.1 million from other areas to allow more spending on education.

These changes allowed the council to restore 26 "pool" teachers for schools facing large classes, seven resource teachers to help improve classroom instruction, 12 teachers in programs for the gifted and talented in middle schools and maintenance programs for two new schools.

The council approved $138.5 million in county funds for the school system, or about the same amount as the current year, even though the school system is expecting its enrollment to increase by 1,300 next school year.

The budget reflects a $16 million, or 6 percent, cut in spending, the first spending cut in Howard County in more than 40 years, according to Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget officer.

The executive's foil on the council, Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, said he did not agree with all of Mr. Ecker's "priorities of cutback budgeting or government downsizing, [but] I recognize that the voters in the last election chose to endorse Dr. Ecker's policies, and therefore I feel that he should be given the opportunity to test his approach to governance."

In addition to laying off 40 employees, Mr. Ecker has cut 119 unfilled positions.

Mr. Gray added that he worried that the executive had "undermined the human rights and consumer affairs offices by laying off staff members, and I am concerned about the state of disrepair of the sheriff's cars and that the roads could go into disrepair because of cutbacks in resurfacing."

The decision by the Howard County Education Association to stop participating in non-paid meetings and activities in protest of the decision to cut their negotiated 6 percent raise and step increases averaging 2.2 percent prompted sharp criticism yesterday.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, accused the union leaders of "using the schoolchildren to better their salaries," adding that "we need to watch these individuals, for they can corrupt the system."

Mr. Ecker said he was "sorry the leadership of the teachers is denying kids services for something the county government did. I hope they would recognize that the poor economic times requires some sacrifices to be made."

Jim Swab, president of the teachers' union, said the teachers' protest actions "will have no impact on the academic program, but we want to react to a decision by Mr. Ecker to undermine collective bargaining by breaking a contract."

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