Balancing residents’ demands for services with the reality of tax revenues coming in below forecasted estimates, the County Council unanimously gave its preliminary approval to a $5.6 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, adding $14.8 million in spending above what County Executive Ike Leggett had proposed.
The council also unanimously voted to approve updates to the $4.5 billion fiscal 2019 to 2024, six-year capital budget, which funds infrastructure projects such as schools, county building improvements and roads.
“We have produced a budget that is restrained and responsible, does not raise taxes and ensures the county will continue to provide the superb services that so many of our residents appreciate so much,” council President Hans Riemer said.
The votes Thursday were straw votes, but the council is expected to vote May 24 to formally approve the budgets.
Leggett said in a statement Thursday that he appreciates the council approved “virtually all” of what he initially recommended, including fully funding Montgomery County Public Schools’ $2.6 billion operating budget request.
“I am concerned, however, that the council has increased ongoing expenditures by $14 million over and above my recommended budget,” Leggett said.
The additional funding, known as the council’s reconciliation list, largely went to restore the operation of three fire department vehicles and the accompanying 29 full-time firefighters and paramedics that staff the trucks at stations in Hyattstown, Hillandale and Germantown, as well as four additional firefighters in Burtonsville. Adding those items to the budget cost about $6.6 million, but council members said the money was needed to ensure response times in those areas wouldn’t drop.
Council member George Leventhal said that if anyone asks him why the council restored the funding for the vehicles and staff that Leggett proposed cutting, he will respond: “Which community do they think ought to have slower response times for firetrucks and ambulances?”
The reconciliation list approved Thursday was about $7 million less than the initial $21.6 million in additions the council first proposed earlier this month. Some of the reductions from the original list came from cutting about $1 million from Montgomery College’s funding request.
Council member Craig Rice on Thursday took issue with this decision, and said he saw “no reason” why the council “couldn’t find the courage” to provide the additional funding for the college.
Riemer said the council had to weigh its priorities while dealing with the reality that the county doesn’t have unlimited resources to fund the spending requests of every department and agency.
Earlier this month, council staff warned the council that the county is likely to receive $77 million less revenue in fiscal 2019 than previously forecasted. County officials have attributed the projected budget shortfall to a drop in the amount of income tax paid by the wealthiest county residents—possibly due to federal tax cuts.
Council members also added about $900,000 to expand half-day preschool to full-day programs at eight elementary schools.
Despite lagging revenues, the council was able to fund its reconciliation list by transferring about $4 million from the $11 million public campaign finance fund, which is projected to be over budgeted based on the amount of money already withdrawn by candidates certified to receive public financing during the current election cycle. The council was also able to find about $2 million in reductions in the county executive’s budget proposal and transferred about $10.5 million from the Employee Health Benefit Insurance Fund to pay for items on the list, according to data provided by council staff.
Council member Nancy Floreen, who passed her final budget after 16 years on the council, noted the budget has increased by 80 percent—from $3.08 billion—since she began serving and the school system’s budget has increased from $1.5 billion to $2.6 billion.
“It is my hope that the next council, and all future Montgomery County Councils will continue this strong support for education, while working purposefully to provide equity for all our students in our schools,” said Floreen, who must step down due to term limits.
There was a brief dustup during the approval when Jim Driscoll, a climate activist, was escorted out of the council hearing room. He and a group of others began protesting after they were told by Riemer that the council did not include about $70,000 in funding for a new “climate czar” to coordinate the county government’s handling of climate issues.
Climate activist Jim Driscoll escorted out of council budget meeting by police for protesting lack of $70k in funding for climate emergency staff employee he wanted funded pic.twitter.com/kyYiWW4Bco
— Andrew Metcalf (@AJwatchMD) May 17, 2018
The council also detailed how it whittled down the capital budget, after considering revenue forecasts, after initially recommending funding items that exceeded the county’s spending limits.
This was partly done by agreeing to a $33 million savings plan earlier this year. On Thursday, the council members also had to address an additional $10.4 million shortfall, which they did by deciding to use short-term financing in the form of seven-year bonds to pay for $14.5 million in new Ride On buses rather than paying for the buses with current revenue.
The council also agreed to reduce funding for residential road resurfacing by $5 million, reduce funding for the White Oak Science Gateway Redevelopment Project by about $6.5 million and reduce $11 million in capital funding for HVAC, roof replacement and other maintenance items at Montgomery County Public Schools in fiscal 2019. However, regarding the White Oak and school funding, the council plans to increase funding in later years in the six-year capital spending plan to make up for the reductions in next year’s capital budget.
Leggett in his statement took issue with the council’s decision, by a 5-4 vote last week, to alter his proposal to change how stormwater management projects are contracted. Leggett proposed that one contractor handle the design, construction and maintenance of stormwater projects to meet the bulk of state requirements to treat runoff from certain amounts of impervious surface in the county. However, the council voted to maintain the current contracting system, which uses different contractors to design, build and maintain each project. Leggett and environmental department officials described that method as costly and inefficient.
Leggett said he intends to veto the council’s decision.
“We need to make this program more efficient and cost-effective,” Leggett said. “And we need to be responsive to county taxpayers who—without changes—will be paying more in stormwater management charges to get less. The status quo is unacceptable.”