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Tight Fit in Howard


At first blush, the budget patched together by Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the county council appears an impressive primer on fiscal juggling in tough times. ,, The $270 million spending blueprint for the 12 months that begin July 1 not only maintains existing services, but adds a few new ones -- curbside recycling for 7,000 more homes, books and supplies for two new libraries and money to pay for 18 police cadets. The Board of Education gets what it needs to hold the line on class sizes and to fully staff two new schools. There's even a little something for raise-starved county employees.

The rabbit-out-of-the-hat part is that Howard expects to pull this off in a year of near-anemic revenue growth without raising property or piggyback income taxes. A hotly-debated proposal to temporarily boost the county's piggyback tax to 52 from 50 percent died on the vine. Instead, the council embraced a bevy of new fees aimed at builders and developers and passed a 5 percent tax on hotel and motel stays. A $2 million gap in education funding was neatly patched -- the council trimmed $1 million from county government spending and asked the board to trim a like amount from school programs.

What this budget doesn't have is crawl space. Council members C. Vernon Gray and Shane Pendergrass -- champions of the failed piggyback increase -- rightly point out that mid-year state cuts could put the county in a bind.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, meanwhile, frets about the "continuing dilution" of Howard's educational program terms of books, materials and staff development. "We cannot continue indefinitely to dig a deeper and deeper hole," he said. "We're going to have to bite the bullet on taxes if the economy does not turn around."

In eschewing an option taken by their counterparts in Baltimore and Montgomery counties, Howard politicians are clearly banking on at least a modest return to economic life this year. But they may have painted themselves -- and voters -- into a corner if things don't go as planned.

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