The County Council approved Tuesday $54.2 million in budget cuts, an unprecedented maneuver this early in a fiscal year that might serve as a preview of more cuts to come.
The move comes a little more than two weeks after County Executive Ike Leggett proposed $50.8 million in cuts, many to programs added to the county’s fiscal year 2016 budget just two months ago.
While council members fought back on some of Leggett’s proposed cuts—accepting $36 million of the recommended $50.8 million “budget savings plan”—the nine-member body bridged the gap by delaying about $18 million in construction funding this fiscal year for the Bethesda Metro South Station Entrance and renovations to the Council Office Building.
“I think that the lesson to be learned, I hope, on the executive branch’s part is that when items are added to the budget by council members, council members are going to defend those items fiercely,” Council President George Leventhal said.
Items the council declined to cut that Leggett recommended cutting include funding for caretakers of developmentally disabled residents, overtime money for police officers conducting pedestrian safety stings, expanded hours for the Chevy Chase and Potomac libraries and the January expansion of the Bethesda Circulator route.
Leventhal, whose first public reaction to Leggett’s proposed cuts was to question the salaries of some of the county government’s top-paid employees, echoed that sentiment again Tuesday. He also emphasized a statement in the council resolution authorizing the cuts that says the county government must use the money council members appropriate through the budget process.
Stephen Farber, director of council staff, said it was the first time he can remember a budget savings plan going into effect so soon after a budget was approved. The fiscal year 2016 budget went into effect July 1.
Farber said the county has often created mid-fiscal year budget savings plans. He and others alluded to the possibility that it may do so again this fiscal year. In fiscal year 2010, the county went through two sets of budget cuts thanks to the Great Recession.
“There’s a distinct possibility that we’re not done,” Farber said. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”
The $54.2 million in cuts will help plug a potential budget shortfall of about $175 million over the next few years.
Some of that shortfall is due to $21 million in lower-than-expected income tax revenue dispersed by the state for last fiscal year. Some is due to the May 18 outcome of the Wynne tax case.
In a 5-4 decision in the Wynne case, the Supreme Court ruled the state must provide a credit on the county portion of the state income tax for those who pay taxes on out-of-state earnings.
That will mean about $15 million in lost tax revenue for Montgomery County this fiscal year and a total loss of about $150 million from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2017.
In countering Leventhal’s argument for a review of top-level county employee salaries, Leggett said Leventhal shut down the idea of raising the county’s property tax for this fiscal year as an option for raising needed revenue.
Beginning with his public budget forums in January, Leggett has warned that the county may need to raise the property tax above the Charter limit—a move that would require a unanimous council vote.
Farber said a property tax increase of 10 cents in fiscal year 2017—which would be enough just to plug the budget shortfall—would cost the average Montgomery County homeowner $450 in extra property taxes.
Leventhal asked county employee unions and Leggett to consider those upcoming budget prospects when renegotiating contracts this fall.
“My hope is also that the executive side will be a tough negotiator,” said Leventhal, who then called on council Vice President Nancy Floreen, mentioning that Floreen will take over as council president in time for the fiscal year 2017 budget process.
“It’s going to be fun,” Floreen quipped.