In an unusual memo this week, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) explained why he was funding one high-profile capital projects instead of another.
The memo comes at a time when tension is high over budget negotiations, as Montgomery officials attempt to reduce the county’s debt.
Leggett used the memo to discuss his rationale for putting $41 million in his proposal for a new six-year capital spending plan for a redevelopment project in Wheaton, while deferring $44 million previously allocated to build a second entrance to the Bethesda Metrorail station. Leggett described the deferral as a way of maintaining frugality.
County officials, who have been trying to preserve Montgomery’s AAA bond rating, have pledged to reduce the amount of government borrowing. Leggett has proposed the first cut to school construction funding in recent memory.
This year’s capital plan discussions have been unusually tense because of the curbed spending. County officials are scrutinizing the more expensive projects, such as those planned for Wheaton and Bethesda.
Leggett started off the memo by saying that some county legislators have approached him about using funds for the Wheaton project to pay for the Bethesda one.
But some County Council officials say Leggett’s contention that the two projects are competing with each other is false and politically driven, because they believe both projects can ultimately be funded when the council approves the capital plan in May.
Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who received the memo, said that all projects, not just two, are in competition with each other in the spending plan. Berliner is part of a council committee that approved putting back funding into the Bethesda project but delaying construction by a year.
Leggett said he wrote the memo only to respond to the council members who had approached him. He declined to say which. "To me it just seems illogical to do that, because there is no need to do that," he said of transferring money from one to the other.
The Bethesda and Wheaton projects are hot-button issues for many Montgomery residents.
The Wheaton project has been supported by many in the small business community, who have told county officials that they do not feel adequately supported. Their complaints followed plans announced last fall for Wal-Mart to expand an existing store and establish two new stores in the county. Some Wheaton residents fear the neighborhood’s small businesses will disappear as the area is redeveloped.
Meanwhile, community activists, the business community and some county officials have said the Bethesda project is integral to the success of the Purple Line plan.
Leggett administration officials have said that because it remains unclear when state and federal officials would provide funding for the Purple Line, it makes more sense for the county to plan to use the $44 million elsewhere.
Leggett elaborates on this point in his memo. He said the entrance could be delayed because construction of the Purple Line is unlikely to begin in Bethesda. In response, a spokesman for the Maryland Transit Administration said a detailed construction schedule has not been finalized.
Leggett also responded to a criticism by community activists that deferred funding sends a negative signal to the state. He said that the MTA assured his administration at a Monday meeting that “such is not the case at all.”
The MTA spokesman said Leggett had assured MTA officials that funding for the project would be available when needed. An MTA official who was briefed on the meeting and was not authorized to speak publicly added that although including the funds would be “better,” deferring them is not a “fatal flaw.”