Economy, law could lead to 2013 cuts in public services in Montgomery County

Montgomery County may face cuts in public services next year as it confronts fallout from the recession and the effects of a state law that tightens requirements to keep education spending levels constant, according to a new report likely to open a months-long budget debate.

The report, released Tuesday by county legislative staff, projects a 5.2 percent drop in funding for services such as public safety, transportation and assistance for needy families for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The report focuses heavily on recent funding decisions made by Montgomery’s public school system, which accounts for about half of the county’s roughly $4 billion budget. It also addresses revisions to Maryland’s “maintenance of effort” law, which requires per-pupil education funding to remain at least the same level from year to year.

With newly enacted changes, the state mandate has become more inflexible. If Montgomery schools increase per-pupil funding in a given year, that increase becomes “a new, permanently increased funding level,” potentially changing the budget picture for other agencies, the report says.

“The state has taken over a relationship between the school system and the county that worked,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “They broke a thing that was working well.”

The report revisits the school system’s budget decisions of last spring at length, most notably the raises it approved for teachers and other employees, which came at an annual cost scheduled to be $65 million.

The analysis determined that cost was equivalent to 550 additional full-time employees this year — including reading teachers, paraeducators and music teachers — and another 200 next year.

Many positions have been cut in the past two years, and county council members say they often hear complaints.

If smaller raises had been given, some positions could have been restored or class sizes could have been reduced, the report says.

Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said Tuesday that educators had not yet had a chance to review the report but that employees received “much-deserved compensation.”

“We think they’re worth every penny,” Tofig said.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said the report, issued by the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight, was an “objective, impartial analysis” not intended as an attack on the school system.

Still, he pointed to potential trade-offs that may lie ahead, including reductions in food stamps, foster-care case workers and child-care subsidies.

“If we don’t have sufficient funding for other areas of county government that benefit children, that directly affects the success of our school system,” Leventhal said.

Two council committees are scheduled to discuss the report further next week.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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