Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker declared a "fiscal emergency" yesterday, saying revenue forecasts are so poor that the county will have to cut its spending authority at least 6 percent and consider new fees and tax increases.

The Republican used his first news conference since taking office last month to talk about the practical consequences of the recession. He said it could lead to higher taxes, lower spending on schools, less frequent trash pickup and a pay freeze for county employees.

Ecker said he is struggling to come up with a $270 million operating budget for the 1992 fiscal year, a 6 percent drop from this year's $286.5 million. Over the past two years, the county's operating budget has grown by more than 17 percent a year.

It is unlikely that the county will actually spend $286.5 million this year.

The county faces a deficit of up to $17.6 million and may have to borrow to meet a county requirement that the budget be balanced.

"Yes, the financial picture is bleak, but next year will be worse," Ecker said. "In my opinion, we have a fiscal emergency."

The county suffers from the same economic downturn that has disrupted budgets throughout the Washington region, cutting revenue from income and development-related taxes. Howard's revenue this year is about 6.5 percent lower than originally expected. Without a tax increase, the county projects it will collect only $253.9 million in fiscal 1992, falling about $16 million short of Ecker's $270 million target.

Ecker will propose his fiscal 1992 operating budget in April after receiving recommendations from a spending committee made up of citizens and county budget officials. His budget and tax proposals then go to the County Council.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) said Ecker's news conference appeared aimed at laying the foundation for proposals to increase taxes.

"He's preparing people for the tax hammer that will fall later," Gray said.

Ecker said a property tax increase is likely but declined to say how large an increase he might propose. He said he is considering a 5 percent tax on hotel stays, if he gets authority from the state legislature and the County Council.

Ecker said he may be forced to charge new fees for recreation programs or dumping garbage at the landfill. He said he might propose using less salt and more cinders on snow-covered roads.

The county executive also said he is considering trimming services -- opting, for instance, to collect trash once a week rather than twice a week. The change would save about $1 million, he said.

Gray opposes a county tax on hotel stays during the recession because it would take away the county's competitive advantage with surrounding counties that already impose such a tax.

Also, Gray said, "it is unlikely I would support a property tax rate increase."

Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) said the council may not have any choice in approving some increase in the property tax rate of $2.45 per $100 assessed value. "The alternative is severe cuts in services," he said.

Some tax increase may be warranted to protect the county's AA+ bond rating, Ecker said. Bond rating companies like counties to maintain a rainy day fund of at least 5 percent of revenue -- about $12.5 million for Howard. Ecker said the best the county might be able to do in fiscal 1992 is about $1 million. A high bond rating allows the county to borrow at a more favorable interest rate.

"We hope this will satisfy the bond {rating} companies," he said.

Ecker delivered his budget news privately to County Council members, county employee groups and school officials Monday.

Ecker warned county employees that he may be forced to skip cost-of-living increases, longevity pay and merit raises next year to avoid layoffs. He said he also is considering furloughing employees, which would save about $200,000 a day.

"We understand we're in a budget crunch," said Sean Kelly, president of the Howard County firefighter's union. "But you can understand if nobody gets excited about proposals to freeze pay when the cost of living is going up."

Ecker told school officials that he probably will not support increasing the county's share of school costs.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey recently proposed increasing school spending by 11.8 percent in fiscal 1992 to $200.8 million. The county's share would grow by about 12 percent to $157.5 million.

The school system is scheduled to open two new schools next year and grow by 1,000 students.

School board Chairman Deborah D. Kendig said the board will try to meet Ecker's request but that it will be difficult.

"My reaction in one word," she said of Ecker's comments. "Disastrous."