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Ecker sets ceiling on schools budget County executive in spending battle


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker says he intends to limit school funding increases for the next several years to only what is required by the state to pay for enrollment growth.

Mr. Ecker's comments Friday mark the onset -- far earlier than usual -- of what has come to be an annual battle over education dollars in the county.

They come as Mr. Ecker prepares to unveil an austerity plan for county government at tonight's County Council meeting.

The county executive discussed the plan -- which he refers to as his "blueprint" -- with his department heads at a daylong retreat in Columbia Friday, but he and other officials refused to outline specifics in advance of tonight's meeting.

It is clear, however, that Mr. Ecker is worried about the county's tax base, which is not growing as fast as in past years. Meanwhile, he said, the costs of public safety and trash disposal are competing with the schools' needs.

"It's a shock," Mr. Ecker said. "The revenue picture is a shock."

But the timing of his remarks also shocked school board members, who said they didn't expect to begin operating budget discussions until the winter.

"I am surprised," said board member Linda Johnston. "I thought we would have time to negotiate and work with Dr. Ecker and the County Council and look at the needs of the school system and the children."

Board member Stephen Bounds described Mr. Ecker's statement more succinctly: "We're posturing very early this year."

Under a "maintenance of effort" provision in Maryland law, Howard County government must maintain its current level of per-pupil funding for the school system.

With student enrollment projected to increase by about 1,800 in 1996, the county would need to increase its education budget by about $8 million, Mr. Ecker said.

And that's all that he foresees the schools receiving from the county as an increase in its $230-million budget.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said that the $8-million figure itself isn't so surprising.

"It's nothing new," Dr. Hickey said. "He's said that before, at least to us if not publicly. It's about what I expected. I know the situation is difficult, and maintenance of effort is probably pretty realistic."

The last round of budget wrangling between county and school officials -- which only concluded in June -- ended with bitter sniping. In the final act, the County Council went out of its way to trim money for a specific position within the schools' budget -- a precedent that upset school board members.

Last year, Mr. Ecker told the school board he would increase its budget by $6 million to $10 million. He ended up by giving the school system an $8.5 million increase -- about $1 million more than required by the state maintenance of effort law to pay for increased enrollment.

$4.4 million trimmed

But the school board still had to trim about $4.4 million from its original budget request, deferring until the next year many one-time purchases needed to equip the two new high schools scheduled to open next fall.

As a result of that, Mr. Bounds said that he's now "a little concerned about us making sure that we're able to afford those one-time purchases."

As for the penny-pinching plan that Mr. Ecker promises to unveil tonight, it was devised because county budget officials predict that Howard's tax revenues will grow at only 4 percent a year -- a paltry figure compared to the 10 percent to 20 percent revenue growth of the 1980s.

Although Mr. Ecker declined to provide details of the plan, he did say he was "looking" at increasing workweeks for some staffers from 35 to 40 hours. Whether they would get a pay increase with the increased hours hasn't been decided, he said.

Increased hours

Such a change would allow the county to receive approximately the same number of working hours from nine staffers that it now receives from 10. About 600 staffers, or one-third of the county government staff, work less than 40 hours a week.

Mr. Ecker said his intent is to avoid layoffs and a tax increase.

But, he added, the plan "calls for change. And change is very disruptive."

During his last austerity campaign in 1991, Mr. Ecker laid off 40 workers, furloughed 1,600 non school employees for five unpaid days, kept more than 100 vacancies unfilled and eliminated or reduced pay raises for employees. He also raised the property tax rate 14 cents.

'It scares me'

County officials reached last week said they either didn't know about the plan or refused to talk about it.

"What he's going to give as a plan I don't know," said Darrel E. Drown, the council vice chairman. "The options are either reduce services or raise taxes.

"Financially, I look at it today and I look at it five or 10 years out, and it scares me," he said.

Mr. Drown said the county must address trash problems, road problems and the fact that 1,500 to 1,800 new students a year are entering its schools.

He said he has long tried to get rid of the 35-hour workweek for county workers. "We have to get real," he said. "Everyone is downsizing and not hiring."

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