IN 1991, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker came into office with a bang. The former school system administrator immediately started demanding efficiencies from department heads, laying off workers and holding the line on spending. Now in his second term, Mr. Ecker is unveiling what is being called the second phase of his austerity plan.
As part of an effort to increase services without a direct increase in property taxes, Mr. Ecker is calling on his staff to find ways to cut spending by 12 percent across the board. The potential $13.4 million in savings will be used mostly to fund education and debt service. Any money left will be earmarked for new services such as additional police officers.
There is much merit to the Ecker plan, although a lot of the details remain sketchy. Essentially, his is an ambitious effort to // buck the status quo of county government by encouraging real cost-cutting measures and wresting concessions from the county's four labor unions. He wants to change the way people are hired, where they can be transferred and whether they can receive bonuses for good work. Confronting the unions, which Mr. Ecker is scheduled to do this week, will likely result in &L; fireworks, but it's an effort worth making. Mr. Ecker's proposal is simply his own variation on a theme that has been sounded from Washington to county and town halls across the country: The need to "reinvent government."
Much of Mr. Ecker's plan is based on a belief that residents will not tolerate a direct tax increase at this time. Whether that assumption bears out will become clearer as details of the plan become known. In theory, everyone clamors for smaller government, but specific cuts are rarely painless. Meanwhile, the county's penchant for tapping other revenue sources, such as charging fees for garbage pickup or for the use of recreational facilities, is already generating controversy as tax increases in disguise.
By unveiling his plan now, ahead of the budget cycle, Mr. Ecker is acknowledging the seriousness of the problem. With Howard's population growing rapidly and its revenue growth continuing to lag, it's good the alarm has been sounded early. The question is, what will be residents' and employees' response?