Howard County is considered one of the more potent economic pockets in the state. Yet if you want a measure of how fragile is Maryland's economic bedrock, it may be a good place to look.
On the surface, Howard seems as strong as ever. Lavish subdivisions are still going up. A wave of "superstores" has some countians wondering how much shopping is too much. And in Columbia, a new village pool just opened to the delight of residents who previously fretted about having to drive a few minutes for a swim. Hardly the picture of a county in trouble. But put your ear to the ground. Those rumbles aren't another wave of earthquakes like the ones that shook Howard a few years ago. It's the sound of the retreat of high-paying, white-collar jobs and of property value growth.
Nearly a decade ago, double-digit revenue increases for county government were common, fueled by a residential boom. But during the recession of the early '90s, new home sales dropped off and have never regained their prior pace.
Layoffs at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Martin Lockheed Corp. have shaken the local economy. Further cuts in Washington will worsen the situation because government and businesses that serve the bureaucracy employ so many Howard countians. The prospect of a state income tax cut next year has county officials fearing a reduction in education aid.
Howard is still in better shape than many. Along with neighboring Montgomery County, it still boasts Maryland's greatest concentration of high-income households. New jobs continue to come on line, making the county's 3.1 percent unemployment rate the lowest in the state. And while home sales aren't turning over as before, small-scale consumer purchases are fueling a major retail expansion.
County leaders are correct, however, to not simply dismiss the matter as one of viewing the glass half-empty or half-full. In assessing county finances, they must be ahead of the curve. In 1991, they had to raise the property tax rate by 14 cents to its current $2.59 per $100 of assessed value. If real estate continues on a languid course, county politicians may have no choice but to raise the rate again. The alternative is to reduce services, a prospect apparently with scant appeal after years of austerity.