As Montgomery County officials consider the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, some residents are speaking up about it, calling for more funds for mental health services and a decrease in police funding.
The County Council heard this month from residents, organizations, commissions, municipalities, and others during four public hearings on County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended fiscal year 2022 operating budget and Capital Improvements Program.
In his proposed $6.7 billion budget plan, Elrich recommended no tax-rate increases, a reorganization of the county’s police department, and targeted funding to support recovery from the health crisis.
Of the $6.7 billion, roughly $6 billion would go to the operating budget. The remainder would go to the CIP, debt service and reserves for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
Some of the requests from about 100 individuals during the four hearings included more mental health services for the community and students, more social workers to replace school resource officers, and increasing funds for the Municipal Tax Duplication Program.
Among other requests were moving money from the police budget to support other needs, transferring the oversight of traffic violations to the transportation department, and a 3% increase to contracts with nonprofits.
The council will have work sessions on the budget, leading up to its final vote on the budget no later than June 1 — a month before the new fiscal year begins. Work sessions on the CIP begin on Tuesday.
Devorah Stavisky of Jews United for Justice said during a hearing on Tuesday that licensed clinical social workers should be at each of the county’s high schools — a cost that she estimated would be about $2.6 million.
Stavisky praised pending county legislation to remove school resource officers, and urged officials to consider expanding the mental health crisis response teams, which respond to emergency mental health calls. Elrich proposed adding six additional positions for three new teams to the program in the budget.
“We’re also glad that the county executive’s proposed budget nearly doubles the funds for automated traffic enforcement and we ask the council to correspondingly decrease the funding for traffic police and move those funds to more critical areas of need,” she said. She added that her organization also urges no new funding for the county police department.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice NOW praised Elrich’s plan to remove school resource officers, but said she did not support placing officers in community clusters to “hover” near schools instead.
“This amendment is something that I am imploring all of you not to support,” she said. “Instead, you could take the money that you’re spending on the cops to hover around neighborhoods and reinvest that money into restorative justice, and make sure and ensure that we have a restorative justice coordinator in every MCPS schools. … You could also invest it into culturally competent social workers and other counselors.”
Elrich proposed eliminating 29 positions across the police department — 25 of which are for sworn officers. Many of those positions are currently vacant.
Even with some positions being cut, the police department’s budget is proposed to increase by $1.6 million, or about 0.6%, from the FY21 budget.
Courtney Hall, the CEO of Interfaith Works, joined other nonprofit representatives in asking the council to consider increasing the nonprofit contracts with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services by 3% to help fund living wages for nonprofit employees.
“This [increase] will enable us to cover more costs, including paying our staff a living wage,” he said.
Hall said that the nonprofit’s contracts with the county already do not cover the cost of doing business. That “burden is made worse” when the organization cannot afford to pay a living wage to essential employees, he said.
“Our shelter employees should not be able to earn more at Burger King than they do caring for our most vulnerable neighbors,” he said.
Hall also said he was concerned that the contract budget, which allows Interfaith to operate overflow homeless shelters, was reduced by 40% in the proposed budget.
“We may be unable to operate the shelters and, as a result, the shelter system could have about 80 fewer emergency shelter beds available for women,” he said.
Several mayors spoke in favor of the county increasing funds to reimburse tax duplication, which is a method to resolve the issue of property owners paying taxes to both the municipal and county governments for a service they receive only from the municipality. Tax duplication is resolved with a rebate payment to municipalities.
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman said the county’s budget needs to be amended so there is an appropriate amount in the budget for reimbursing tax duplication.
He estimated that the county should have $14.2 million in tax duplication funding — about $5 million more than what is budgeted in the plan.
“During the Great Recession — due to lack of revenue — the county froze the rebate at a certain level and now, even as revenues have recovered, the rebate remains frozen while the costs of providing those services grows each year,” he said.
Residents should not be forced to pay the county for services that only the cities provide, he said.
Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart said the services that are double taxed in the city include road maintenance, crossing guards, parks and the police department.
Stewart said the county should codify a consistent method to update the formula for the actual costs of the services.
“This is really imperative for us. We cannot continue to provide services without the formulas in place and being regularly updated,” she said. “This is how bad it is. Tax duplication rebate funds have been largely frozen since 2012. The formula for the police services was last updated in 2000.”
Yet, the cost of services has risen, Stewart said.
“We can’t kick this can down the road anymore,” she said, adding that the county needs to “rectify this longstanding issue.”
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at email@example.com.