Ecker hopes for reprieve from state's austerity budget


County Executive Charles I. Ecker knows Howard County will not escape Gov. William Donald Schaefer's budget ax, but he hopes to dull the blade a little.

"Basically, he's taken all he can" from the non-education portion of the budget, Mr. Ecker said. "Maybe there's a couple of hundred thousand more -- he'll probably get that -- but he'll need legislative authority" to go beyond that and slash health and education funding.

The governor shocked officials from counties throughout the state Saturday by telling them they will be hit hard with an estimated $500 million budget deficit. Maryland's constitution requires a balanced budget, and Mr. Schaefer said he will outline his proposed cuts by Sept. 15 and put them into effect by Oct. 1.

Wealthy counties are most likely to bear the brunt of his cuts, the governor said, especially those such as Howard that gave their employees a raise for fiscal 1993 and refused to increase the local income tax.

Mr. Ecker thinks Howard should be an exception. He wrote the governor this week to persuade him that Howard County should not be judged by those criteria. Howard is different because it made deep sacrifices to deal with its fiscal crisis early on, he said.

The argument is essentially the same one Mr. Ecker used to no avail last year. He told the governor then that the county began fiscal 1992 by cutting services, laying off 40 employees, leaving another 120 positions unfilled and raising the property tax 14 cents.

Even those measures, however, were not enough to offset recurring cuts in state aid. Workers outside the Board of Education were furloughed a week without pay.

"Every employee in [fiscal] '92 got at least a 2 percent decrease because of the furloughs," Mr. Ecker said. "Thirteen percent averaged a 6 percent decrease and 11 percent got a 3 percent decrease."

For fiscal 1993, the new fiscal year that began July 1, pay decreases averaged about 1 percent, Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker believes county residents cannot afford another a tax increase, although the governor said counties may have to increase local income taxes to make up for the cuts he is planning.

Howard County residents pay local income taxes equal to 50 percent of their state income tax bill. The county can collect up to 60 percent.

Last winter, Mr. Ecker slashed the county budget and furloughed employees in anticipation of additional state cuts. This time, he is waiting for the governor to act.

"We're not planning furloughs at this time," Mr. Ecker said. He has however, eliminated discretionary spending and pay-as-you go projects, and he is leaving most vacancies unfilled.

The exception to the vacancy rule will be in the Police Department, where Mr. Ecker is looking to recruit new officers and add transfers from other departments. All other county vacancies will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Some county police and sheriff's cars may break down because the county is not replacing vehicles, Mr. Ecker said, and some potholes will go unfilled because the county will not be repaving roads.

"I do not see other services reduced unless the cuts are a lot larger than anticipated," he said.

When the cuts come, "everybody is going to have to take their share -- the community college, the state agencies, the Circuit Court, the State's Attorney's Office, and the Board of Education," Mr. Ecker said.

"I hope everybody sees that we have to share. The non-education portion of the budget is 15 percent below the 1991 budget. The education share is the same. They've had an increase in students, but we've had an increase in population."

State aid to education in Howard County is sent directly to the school system and does not go through the county budget. The governor can cut those funds directly or he can simply set a dollar amount and let the county decide where to cut.

If the governor chooses the latter course, the school board is expected to pressure Mr. Ecker and the County Council to trim local government spending before decreasing school funds.

"Before we cut programs or they cut programs, we cut the county's $1 million contingency reserve," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "I don't think we should hang onto those reserves."

Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks disagrees. "It's the only money we have to cover emergencies," he said. "We put money in the budget to cover three to five major storms. So far, we've been lucky."

Mr. Hickey has not eliminated discretionary spending, but he has severely curtailed it. He directed principals to spend no more than 15 percent of their $20,000 to $50,000 discretionary budgets until the governor announces the next round of cuts.

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