Montgomery County officials said Monday that the county faces a $71 million shortfall for the fiscal 2014 budget for public safety, transportation and other government agencies.
The budget gap is caused by expected increases in government debt payments and retiree health benefits, county officials said. Also contributing are recent changes in state law that shifted some of the cost of rising teacher pensions from the state to counties, forcing jurisdictions to maintain what are among the nation’s highest levels of per-pupil school spending.
Because of the state law, next year’s school budget is expected to increase by $30 million, according to county officials. The budget for Montgomery College is expected to remain the same. But other agencies, such as the county’s planning and police departments, will have $71 million less to spend, county officials said.
County officials declined to specify whether they would raise taxes or cut spending to close the gap, but they said the choices next year will be difficult.
“It would threaten the initiatives that the [County] Council has had and the executive has had,” budget director Jennifer Hughes said at a County Council hearing Monday.
Meanwhile, county officials also anticipate that taxes and other revenue sources will increase by $93 million, or about 2 percent, next year. Among other assumptions, property taxes are expected to increase by about $44 million, or 3 percent, next year.
County officials also assume that they will keep nearly all of an unpopular energy tax increase that was expected to sunset this year. The tax increase helped to pay for social programs, hire additional police officers, give bonuses to county workers and create a $150,000-a-year senior government position.
At a press conference Monday, Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) described the budget projections as “sobering.” He also said the county may keep the energy tax at current levels and would not say definitively whether the county would consider increasing it again.
“Our commitment is to reduce the energy tax. I would think that the worst case scenario is keeping the energy tax at its current level,” he said. “But I’ve got eight colleagues and anything is always possible.”
Robin Ficker, the well-known Republican activist, said he has collected about 14,000 signatures in a petition to challenge the energy tax increase. He said Monday that his team was verifying the signatures and that he will be submitting the petition to the county Board of Elections in early August. If the board certifies the petition, the issue will appear on the November ballot.