County Executive Isiah Leggett on Monday defended his controversial pitch for a county transit authority and said an effort to raise the property tax past the county’s Charter limit is very much in play for this year or next.
Leggett answered questions and heard concerns from residents for about an hour at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, in the last of his five customary budget forums around the county.
He again pitched the Independent Transit Authority, despite withdrawing a state bill earlier on Monday that would have enabled it. The move to step back and reevaluate the idea came after a week of blistering opposition from civic groups, the county’s main employee union and other residents.
“My idea is to say, ‘OK, if you have better ideas, let’s hear them,'” Leggett said after the forum. “If I don’t see anything better then we might come back to it.”
Leggett said he has set a target of June to “really decide” if and how to move forward with a second attempt at the transit authority.
Before taking questions, the three-term county executive said the so called ITA is necessary for long-term borrowing that could help fund a bus rapid transit system.
“If we don’t do this, we have one of two choices. We could wait for the governor and the General Assembly to provide us somewhere from $650 million to $1 billion, which is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future,” Leggett said. “Or, we could use the existing authority that we have to tax ourselves to provide that amount of money. That’s a huge amount of taxes to have to pay for that and then transit would compete with all of the other things we have in our budget.”
Opponents objected to the idea of an independent authority — with a lesser degree of county oversight — being able to issue its own bonds and tax outside the Charter limit.
“Now some have objected,” Leggett said. “My response is, ‘Well, give me your idea,’ because we simply cannot stand still. If your idea is to say, ‘Let’s have transit stand in line,’ then our children and our grandchildren will be standing in line for a long period of time because these projects will stay on paper.”
Leggett also addressed the idea of raising the property tax past the Charter limit, a possibility he first raised in a Washington Post story last week.
Leggett cited the county’s projected $237.9 million budget gap for FY 16, plus an expected $31 million in state funding cuts as why the move might be necessary. He has not decided whether to propose the move this year or next. Raising property taxes over the Charter limit would require approval from all nine council members.
“I’m not going to stand before you and say that taxes above the Charter limit is not a possibility,” Leggett said. “I think it’s just a question of when we have it.”
Joan Fidler, a Bethesda resident and president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, asked Leggett how realistic it is to expect unanimous Council support for what could be a politically unpopular decision.
It appears unlikely that Leggett would run for a fourth county executive term in 2018, leaving the job open and at least a few council members vying for it.
“My biggest problem with the Charter is that huge barrier, is you need all nine members,” Leggett said in response to a follow-up question. “That potentially places one member in a chokehold position. ‘Well Mr. Leggett, I’d vote for the taxes if you fund X.’ The next person: ‘Well, I’ll vote for it if you fund Y.’ By the time I get to all the Xs and Ys, all the money’s gone, potentially.”
Other issues raised included public funding of elections, beefing up protective services for the elderly, restoring library funding to pre-Recession levels, expanding the Bethesda Circulator route, affordable housing increases and accelerating plans for the new parking garage and recreation center at Wall Park in White Flint.
But concerns about school overcrowding, class sizes and education improvements garnered the most attention, with parents from each of Bethesda’s three high school clusters raising issues.
Ann Gallagher, a PTA member in the Walt Whitman cluster and part of the Start School Later group, asked Leggett about the possibility of sparing some money for one of the new bell schedule options the Board of Education is considering.
Leggett said he’s concerned about how moving back school start times, even by as little as 20 or 25 minutes, might make rush hour traffic worse.
“What I’ve asked is that they make sure to go through a proper analysis of this, because I don’t want to have any unintended consequences,” Leggett said.
Leggett also said it might be easier for him to make a pitch for higher taxes if he could point to exactly how the extra revenues would benefit the school system, which traditionally takes up about half of the county’s annual operating budget.
He pointed to the county’s recent open data efforts, which include information on county budgets, spending and contracts.
“What we don’t see and what citizens say constantly is that we don’t see the same thing from the school system,” Leggett said. “I’ve urged the school system, you need to be more transparent so when you make arguments for additional resources, people see precisely where it’s going.”