The Montgomery County Council has preliminarily approved a $6 billion fiscal 2022 operating budget, along with a $4.3 billion capital improvements program for fiscal years 2021-26.
The operating budget represents a roughly $200 million increase from fiscal year 2021. Council members credited coronavirus relief money for helping supplement last year’s and this year’s budget.
Council Member Hans Riemer said in an interview that the relief money has helped county officials maintain a “status quo” regarding the overall budget. He said that wasn’t the case when he was first elected in 2010, as he and his colleagues dealt with impacts of the Great Recession.
“We had to disrupt the status quo and make a lot of very structural changes to the budget,” he said of those budgets. “This year, we’re figuring out how to add hundreds of millions of dollars from the state and federal government. … Frankly, if the federal government had acted as boldly back then, we might not have had to make those changes.”
The money comes from both the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan, federal relief bills Congress passed during the pandemic. Montgomery County officials received $183.3 million from the CARES Act and is projected to get $204.1 million from the American Rescue Plan.
Council Member Nancy Navarro said in an interview that the budget process was “exhausting and challenging,” but added it was “inspiring” to see council members and residents rally together to endure an unprecedented challenge.
Navarro was first elected to the County Council in May 2009. There were budget challenges now and then, but there is more uncertainty now about what lies in the future, she said.
“When I was elected to the council, I always joke I had all these sort of plans and items on our agenda … and it was all about cutting, cutting, cutting,” Navarro said. “The difference back then was it was a clear understanding of the root causes of the recession, in terms of the fiscal elements that led to the recession. And therefore, it was a bit easier to project … the county’s fiscal footing moving forward.”
Nearly half of the county’s operating budget, $2.8 billion, is slated for Montgomery County Public Schools. This year’s budget adds about $30 million more than last year.
County Executive Marc Elrich’s budget proposal in mid-March, also at $6 billion, aimed to cut 29 positions from the Montgomery County Police Department, including 25 sworn officers. Council members agreed to cut 27 sworn officers, including five school resource officers.
But the police budget still is projected to grow by roughly $1.6 million, because of pay increases and many of the aforementioned positions were vacant.
Elrich and council members did agree on keeping the average property tax rate at 97.85 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The income tax offset credit — provided against the county’s real property tax rate to offset increases of more than 2.6% of the county income tax revenues — will stay at $692 next year, the same as this year.
That process is different from last year’s process of creating a budget, when Elrich proposed about a 5-cent tax increase, most of which would have gone to fund education through a special 3.18-cent supplemental property tax. County Council members rejected that plan.
Even when the property-tax rate stays the same, property owners still have to pay more in taxes if assessments increase. The state’s Department of Assessments and Taxation conducts those assessments.
Navarro also highlighted the importance of recognizing county employees’ hard work through raises, and providing a “safety net” for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Last year, county employees did not receive raises, but were paid $89 million in hazard pay. In late April, council members opted to give raises to county employees after hazard pay ended in mid-February. The raises differed from county government employees to county firefighters to county police.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ budget is more than $363 million, up about $25 million from this year’s budget.
Other highlights in the $6 billion operating budget include:
- $233 million for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue Service, up $7.7 million from this year for emergency supply costs and apparatus maintenance
- $229 million for the county’s Department of Transportation, down more than $6 million because of less bus service and other factors
- $94.8 million for Children, Youth and Families, an increase of $3.7 million to expand quality early care and education access for young children, especially in underserved communities
- $1 million to fund six new full-time employees in the Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice
A final vote on the operating and capital budgets is expected by June. The county charter requires County Council members to vote by then.
The county executive has line-item veto power, which can be overridden with six votes.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org