This story was updated at 4:56 p.m. on May 18, 2023 to include statements from the Montgomery County Education Association and County Executive Marc Elrich.
This story was updated at 3.39 p.m. on May 18, 2023 to include more information.
The Montgomery County Council is likely to pass a 4.7% real estate tax rate increase as part of next week’s budget vote, based on a straw poll taken Thursday at a council budget work session.
The 4.7% increase was proposed by councilmember Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3) and seconded by councilmember Natali Fani-González (D-Dist. 6). Councilmembers Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1), Will Jawando (D-At-large), Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4) and Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) voted against the proposal, but no other proposals were brought forward.
County Executive Marc Elrich initially proposed a 10% real estate tax rate increase to fund his budget. All councilmembers were opposed to this high of an increase, but debated a fitting increase.
“This budget is unlike any budget that this county has ever had,” Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large) said, in reference to Elrich’s tax increase proposal.
The County Council has been making numerous cuts and adjustments to the proposed budget, organizing line items into “high priority” and “priority” categories. To fund all “high priority” items, the council would need to pass a 5.7% increase, council budget staff said Thursday. To fund all “high priority” and “priority” items, the council would need to pass an 8.2% increase.
The 4.7% increase will cover all budgetary commitments the council promised, including the Montgomery County Public Schools operating budget, county budget staff said.
Glass said the council has a “moral obligation” to keep their commitment, but since the council also has diverse opinions about how high the rate should be, he thinks the 4.7% increase is a good middle ground.
“If we are intellectually honest in supporting everything in this budget, we have to support the revenues needed to carry out this budget to pay for them,” Glass said.
Jawando and Mink said they primarily opposed the 4.7% tax increase because they’re concerned it’s not high enough to fund everything MCPS has asked for outside its operating budget.
“Moving things to the reserves and kicking the can down the road is also going to be a problem next year. … It’s not good for our students. It’s not good for our budget,” Jawando said.
Stewart voiced concerns that the proposed tax rate would cause the county to rely too heavily on one-time funds such as American Rescue Plan Act pandemic funding, and dipping into county reserves to support the budget.
Alternatively, Friedson said he opposed the increase because he thought it was too high.
“I have deep concerns about this budget that was predicated from the start on a false narrative that a 10% property tax increase was needed to fund education,” Friedson said. He criticized Elrich for pushing for a budget that required a tax increase and leaving the council with the work of sorting it out.
But councilmembers who supported the 4.7% increase shared the sentiment that this was a good compromise when some constituents were calling for a higher increase to provide more schools funding, and others were opposed to any increase at all.
“This has been a very emotional discussion for our community. I know that we have disappointed people on both sides of the issue,” councilmember Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2) said, explaining that she “chose the compromise.”
Councilmember Gabe Albornoz (D-At-large) said this was “the most unsettled” he’d ever felt when working on a budget, but he thought the 4.7% increase was the most balanced approach.
“The sad reality is we will never be able to afford as a county government to address all the needs that exist within our communities,” Albornoz said.
Since the council passed a recordation tax rate increase earlier this month, an additional projected $187 million has been added to the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget. This means that some major infrastructure projects, including school renovations, will not have to be cut, regardless of the real estate tax rate.
There will be no changes to the scope or schedules for any of the school renovation projects in the CIP, although some technical adjustments will be made to funding schedules.
Stewart, who led revisions to the recordation tax rate legislation, expressed her gratitude that the council chose to pass the increase in order to fund school renovations. This includes renovations to Magruder High School and Damascus High School, which some community members voiced concern could be put on the chopping block.
“Delaying those would’ve been catastrophic,” Stewart said.
Several councilmembers addressed concerns that not passing the 10% tax increase would affect the contracts of teachers, and urged MCPS to fulfill the full contracts negotiated by the union.
The council does not have jurisdiction over teacher contracts or negotiations between the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) teachers union and MCPS. Councilmember Dawn Luedtke (D-Dist. 7) expressed her frustration at the tensions between the council, MCPS and MCEA during the budget process.
“To MCPS–we need to have partnership and trust, and as I previously stated, that trust is now fractured. It was a disservice to our teachers, staff, students, advocates and families who are already concerned about issues to stoke anxiety about compensation as was done in this process,” Luedtke said. “It was disappointing to have to have conversations with MCPS leaders deep into the budget process in which we found ourselves explaining to them the fiscal realities faced by the county.”
MCEA released a statement Thursday afternoon saying the council is “starving” MCPS.
“Today, the county council showed that they care more about their political future and donations from developers than they do about doing what is right for children, youth, and families. After this vote, we are left to wonder what kind of county they want ours to be,” the statement said in part.
Elrich released a statement Thursday afternoon, saying he has concerns about the council’s decision.
“First, the Council set the supplemental property tax rate for education below the level of new education spending, which will put us in a deficit for the Montgomery County Public Schools,” the statement said in part. “I am concerned the Council’s actions will force us to request mid-year adjustments to fund basic needs, including fuel and critical services, such as sheltering for the homeless. It is my hope that the Council will work collaboratively with my team to make mid-year additions and changes if they are needed because of items not included in the budget as presented.”
Elrich acknowledged the council’s decision includes 98% of his recommended budget.
While the straw poll isn’t a final decision, it will more than likely reflect the council’s formal decision when it takes its final vote on the budget and tax rate at a meeting May 25. The straw poll was taken so that county budget staff can work on revising the proposed budget to reflect the council’s decision. That revised budget will be presented to the council prior to the Thursday vote.