Ecker tells Schaefer he likes cuts in aid But his support has fiscal catch


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker not only likes the cuts the governor proposes to make in state aid to counties, he is asking for more.

But there's a catch. Mr. Ecker wants the state to assume responsibility for the local election board, the state's attorney's office, the Sheriff's Department and the Circuit Court.

"I realize there would be a reduction in local aid if the state assumes financial responsibility" for those agencies, Mr. Ecker told Gov. William Donald Schaefer in a letter dated Oct. 19.

What Mr. Ecker did not tell the governor is that the county would come out way ahead with such a gambit. The county spends more than $6 million to maintain those agencies and receives no help from the state.

If the state does not assume financial responsibility for those agencies, the next best thing is for the county to have power to reduce their budgets and personnel, Mr. Ecker said. The county does not have that power now because the election board, the state's attorney's office, the Sheriff's Department and the Circuit Court are technically state agencies.

The governor's decision to cut $147 million in state aid to counties by eliminating state payment of teachers' Social Security taxes "is the simplest, fairest, structural change that can be made," Mr. Ecker said.

Until now, the state has paid Social Security taxes for local school, library and community college employees. The governor wants local governments to pick up that tab. The Howard County portion would be $6.9 million.

"I do not view it as a cut in aid to education," Mr. Ecker said of the governor's proposal. Each county will have the opportunity to cover at least a portion of the cuts from other areas of their budgets, Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Ecker told the governor things cannot continue as in the past and asked for relief from state mandates. Specifically, he asked for permanent elimination of a so-called maintenance of effort requirement that local governments spend as much on education in the coming budget as the year before. The rule has been rescinded as an emergency measure for the past two years.

Mr. Ecker said local boards of education should either be given taxing power or come under the control of local government. "Something has to change," he said. "I don't care how it changes, but it must change" in order to gain predictability and control over the county budget.

Mr. Ecker stands virtually alone among county officials in telling the governor he made the right cut. School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey called the cut "an unconscionable meat-ax approach that is really wrong."

Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, agrees. She wrote members of the county's General Assembly delegation this week, urging them to vote against the Social Security proposal.

"Maryland ranks 42nd in state contributions to education at the present time," she said. "This is not an enviable position to be in and Maryland will drop even further" if the cuts are approved.

Ms. Pendergrass reminded the delegation that Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. recently announced plans to build a multimillion-dollar plant in the county -- in part because of the county's excellent school system.

"One of the greatest inducements local communities can offer to encourage businesses to locate in Maryland is an excellent educational system," she said.

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