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$9,005 spent on furniture for executive Ecker's purchases came month before his spending cuts plan; Fund transfers avoided; Council members not upset by action, citing small amount


One month before unveiling a plan to cut government spending, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker ordered $9,005 worth of new furniture for his office.

The purchase -- which includes a $1,462, top-of-the-line, high-back leather desk chair for Mr. Ecker -- involved last-minute contributions from the budgets of two county government agencies separate from the executive's budget.

Such contributions sidestep a law requiring approval from the County Council of transfers of funds among county agencies in the last quarter of fiscal years.

But county officials acknowledged yesterday that these moves are not uncommon in Howard -- particularly at the end of fiscal years, when some agencies run out of money and others have extra.

"We borrowed from Peter to pay Paul," said Beverly Wilhide, Mr. Ecker's aide.

Mr. Ecker's new furniture -- the desk chair, 14 conference chairs and a small, round table -- is to be delivered in about 10 weeks.

"People have been after me for a long time to get new furniture," Mr. Ecker said Wednesday.

When asked why he needed such an expensive chair, he said -- while sitting in his old chair -- "I spend a lot of time here."

Two County Council members contacted yesterday said they were not upset about the new furniture.

The furniture now in Mr. Ecker's large Ellicott City office does appear to have seen better days.

Some of it is stained, and the wheels fall off some chairs. Several officials this week described the furniture as ill-suited for an executive whose responsibilities include meeting industry leaders considering moves to the county.

vTC The furniture, including Mr. Ecker's desk chair, is being purchased from Baltimore Stationery Co. In teal-colored leather, the "Kimball Executive High Back Swivel Tilt" chair is "for somebody who really wanted to get a good desk chair," said store salesman Barry Feintuch.

The special-order chair lists for $3,054, but Howard received a 52 percent "metro discount." It isn't offered in Baltimore Stationery's 1995 catalog, where high-back chairs are listed for up to $975 and generally cost $400 to $600.

The county executive long has enjoyed a reputation as a frugal manager. His aide completed the furniture deal Aug. 16, according to invoice documents provided by Mr. Ecker. A month later, he unveiled a plan to cut 12 percent from the county budget by 1997.

Mr. Ecker's office rounded up money for the new furnishings in the closing days of the fiscal year that ended June 30. Mr. Ecker spent $2,300 from his budget, $1,700 from the county administrator's budget and $5,000 from the Department of Public Works'.

The two county agencies paid Baltimore Stationery directly, Ms. Wilhide said. Thus the contributions did not involve transferring

money to Mr. Ecker's budget.

Despite the law requiring County Council approval of transfers among agencies in the final quarter of the fiscal year, officials interviewed did not express concern about the purchases.

"We didn't have time to go to the County Council for that kind of approval," Ms. Wilhide said.

Nor would they have had to, said Gale Benson, a senior budget analyst. "If one agency makes a purchase for another agency, that is not something that has to be approved," she said.

Ms. Wilhide said such moves are "typical," adding: "Whether it's right or wrong, this is the way it is handled."

At the county Department of Public Works, Jo Ann Davis, head of administrative services, said the department was happy to provide the money. "It was almost like a donation," she said.

County Council Vice Chairman Darrel E. Drown, who, like Mr. Ecker, is a Republican, said the informal transfers of funds without council approval didn't bother him. Compared with the county budget of $149 million, Mr. Drown said, "A $1,400 or $5,000 expenditure or transfer is somewhat minuscule." Mr. Ecker "shouldn't be living in rags," he said.

C. Vernon Gray, one of two Democrats on the council, said he doesn't feel the council should have been notified. "That's just something small," he said.

This week, Charles C. Feaga, a Republican and the council chairman, complained about another furniture purchase -- plans by the county Department of Social Services to spend about $280,000 in state money for new furnishings for its offices. Mr. Feaga was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

In Mr. Ecker's office, the 14 conference chairs are not very comfortable. They are small, do not recline and are stained. "Coffee stains -- more than that perspiration stains," said Raquel Sanudo, the county administrator.

Some chairs with wheels are of particular concern. "There isn't a meeting I go to where a caster doesn't fall off and you tilt your head backward," Ms. Sanudo said.

Mr. Ecker will replace the 14 chairs with chairs costing $421.20 to $519.00 each. He will continue to use a large, rectangular conference table. The new, round table will be used for meetings with one or two people, he said.

Mr. Ecker's new desk chair replaces a high-back cloth chair that "is falling apart," said Ms. Wilhide, his aide. She ought to know. It used to be in her office, but she let Mr. Ecker use it when he came on the job in 1991.

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