Several Howard County government employee unions announced this week that they are banding together to lobby for new or higher taxes next year in the hope of heading off pay cuts or layoffs.

"We believe the people of this county are willing to work with their elected officials to preserve the quality of life they have come to expect," said James Swab, spokesman for the newly formed Coalition of Public Employees of Howard County.

"We don't believe the community will stand by and watch the decline in services and decline in morale," Swab said.

The coalition represents more than 3,700 teachers, police officers, correctional officers and other public employees from seven union locals.

Notably absent from the coalition is the firefighters union. Sean Kelly, president of the firefighters' organization, said union members will vote later whether to join the coalition.

Swab, executive director of the county's 2,700-member teachers union, said the coalition had retained a consultant to analyze the county budget and help members come up with revenue-raising alternatives. He said options could include a property tax increase or imposition of development impact fees or a local tax on telephone calls. The coalition has yet to come up with its final recommendations, and some of the ideas being discussed could not be implemented without authorization from the General Assembly.

The coalition's formation follows the announcement by County Executive Charles I. Ecker (R) on Jan. 8 that the region's economic slowdown could force him to propose that non-school employee groups be given no cost-of-living raises, merit increases and longevity pay next year. Ecker also refused to rule out layoffs.

Ecker asked employee groups to work with him to come up with alternatives.

"We're taking him up on his offer," Swab said.

Ecker's proposals and the economic downturn have damaged county employee morale, Swab said.

"People are alarmed. They are concerned. And they are asking questions about what might be ahead," Swab said.

Police and fire department workers, school clerical workers and some other public employees are negotiating contracts this year. All are mindful that county teachers are scheduled to receive a 6 percent cost-of-living increase from the school board this year as part of the second year of a three-year contract.

"We intend to cooperate" with Ecker, said coalition member Al Smith, who represents a public works employee local, "but don't get the idea that we intend to surrender . . . . {Members of the union} don't want any givebacks at all."

Ecker, who campaigned against higher taxes and the rapid growth of the county government, welcomed the coalition's suggestions.

"I'd like to see what they come up with," he said.

Coalition members said they are concerned that the county's elected officials have at times worked at cross purposes to develop tax policies to deal with the recession. An Ecker proposal to impose a tax on hotel and motel stays was shot down by the county's legislative delegation when two of three Democratic senators voted against the plan, leaving it no sponsor in that body. Ecker has said that he probably will propose an increase in the property tax rate, but County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) has said it is unlikely that he will support such a move.

"We are hopeful the elected officials will put together a progressive economic program," Swab said. "There is not a program to generate more revenue at this time."

Although county elected leaders said there is strong public sentiment against a tax increase, especially a property tax increase, union leaders remain optimistic.

Some recalled that a statewide media blitz against election-year proposals to limit property tax revenue in several counties last year found sympathy among voters, who eventually rejected most of the initiatives.

The difficulty the coalition faces is persuading residents and elected officials that proposals to reduce employee pay or layoff workers would translate into a decline in services enjoyed by most residents.

Swab said most residents are willing to pay to maintain the services they receive: "This is a wealthy county."