Ecker unveils budget


County Executive Charles I. Ecker sent the County Council a $328.5 million budget for fiscal 1996 last night that calls for a 4.2 percent increase in spending, and keeps the property tax rate at $2.59 per $100 of assessed value.

But while he sought to portray himself as a friend of the school system, Mr. Ecker's budget got a chilly reception from school officials yesterday.

The reason: Although the county's contribution to the school system would increase by $8.5 million, it's still about $4.5 million less than school officials requested.

"This is a larger cut that I hoped it would be," said school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, whose department accounts for 52 percent of the proposed budget. "Obviously we're going to have to come up with a list of cuts that need to be made, and it won't be easy."

Despite such complaints, the budget unveiled yesterday appears to be Mr. Ecker's most expansive since he was first elected in 1990, and $4 million more than the ceiling recommended earlier this year by a county spending affordability committee.

It includes:

* Funding for an additional 23 firefighters, 15 police officers and four dispatchers in the county's 911 emergency communications center.

* A 2.5 percent raise for county employees whose work is deemed satisfactory and a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for all county employees.

* Development of a civilian corps of uniformed volunteers who would direct traffic at rock concerts and other major events within the county.

* $224,000 more in grants-in-aid to human service agencies, the first increase in that part of the budget in four years.

Even with those items, "it is still a very austere budget," said Mr. Ecker, who reduced every request from his department heads for the budget year that starts July 1.

Mr. Ecker said he tried to cut spending without reducing services, and to pay for it all with a property tax rate all county residents could afford.

The county executive expects to receive $271 million in the coming fiscal year from the county's two chief sources of revenue -- property taxes and local income taxes.

County budget director Raymond S. Wacks said the county will get more revenue than its spending committee predicted because of higher-than-expected interest income and increased

property assessments.

But taxpayers still wouldn't escape unscathed.

Although the property tax rate remains unchanged, the owner of a $180,000 home still would pay $98 more, or a total of $1,958 in property taxes next year, because of an increase in property values.

And the new firefighters -- projected to cost $1 million -- would be paid for by raising the fire tax in the metropolitan district by 2 cents, to 24 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The average household in the metropolitan district, which includes most county residents, would pay about $20 more a year in fire taxes. The rural district fire tax would remain unchanged at 19 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga said the executive has done his job well. "It's going to be very difficult to shave this budget," Mr. Feaga said. "We probably will not take a knife to it."

That is not good news for the school board.

In order for the council to restore what Mr. Ecker cut from the school request, it would have to cut elsewhere or raise the property tax rate.

Since members have ruled out a tax increase in fiscal 1996, that leaves cutting. And it is doubtful the council will cut $4.5 million elsewhere to restore what Mr. Ecker cut from the Board of Education request.

School officials say their operating budget request -- $234.5 million, including county funds and money received from the state -- is what they need to deal with growing enrollment. They predict that 1,800 students will join the 36,000-pupil system next year.

"While $4.5 million doesn't sound like a lot of money, it's still a lot to cut from what already is a 'streamlined' budget," said Susan J. Cook, chairwoman of the school board. "We made our own cuts to the budget before it ever got to the county. . . . This operating budget accounts for growth and the opening of new schools, and that's it."

Dr. Hickey said that he plans to present a list of proposed operating and capital budget cuts at the board's April 27 meeting, in advance the council's May 4 education budget hearing.

They could include textbook purchases and building maintenance, both of which were cut last year, unless school board members can persuade the council to restore what Mr. Ecker cut. Dr. Hickey and Ms. Cook said the board would press hard to get the school budget fully funded.

But Mr. Ecker, who was deputy superintendent of schools before running for county executive, thinks Howard County can continue to provide good education with less money.

"I'm proud to say that according to recently released figures from the State Department of Education [for fiscal 1994], Howard County spent a higher percent of its wealth on education than any other county in Maryland," Mr. Ecker said in his budget message to the council. "I am confident that this budget request will maintain the county's effort."

The council will begin holding hearings on Mr. Ecker's capital budget proposal tonight in the county office building and will begin conducting hearings on the operating portion of the budget May 2. It's scheduled to set the property tax rate and approve the budget May 24.

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