Andrews: Less for schools and employee raises, more for tax relief, potholes

After receiving Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett’s $5 billion operating budget Monday, most County Council members said they wanted time to comb through the phone-book-size volume before deciding how to add, subtract or otherwise tweak the plan they will vote on in late May.

Phil Andrews, the one member challenging Leggett in the June Democratic primary, came to the conference table in Leggett’s Rockville office with a plan. He said he wanted to divert $40 million to tax relief and infrastructure repair — $26 million from the executive’s school funding proposal and $14 million from funds set aside for raises negotiated with unionized employees.

Andrews would cut the county’s energy tax by 10 percent (cost: $11.8 million) and trim 1 percent from Leggett’s proposed property tax rate ($15 million). He would also increase funds for pothole repair and other infrastructure maintenance ($12 million).

Leggett has already proposed an expansion of library hours, but Andrews would invest more, adding eight hours per week at selected branches.

The tax relief in Andrews’s plan is more symbol than substance. His trim of the property tax rate would roughly double the $17 in annual savings for homeowners in Leggett’s proposal. The cut in the energy tax wouldn’t amount to much either. The council has whittled the 2010 energy tax increase by 10 percent in each of the last two years. Last year’s reduction yielded monthly savings of about $1.29 for the average residential user. Commercial users got a bit more of a break: $13.47.

Andrews may well find takers on the council for another cut in the energy tax. But he will have a tougher time getting a council majority to roll back part of scheduled employee raises or the $26 million beyond the minimum “maintenance of effort” that Leggett has proposed for schools. In an election year, his colleagues likely will be reluctant to displease unions and parent groups.

At Monday’s budget briefing, members seemed happy to see Leggett taking the lead on schools funding and expressed little interest in rocking the boat.

“I don’t see any big red flags,” said Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). Remaining at the state mandated minimum for education funding, he added, was not “the be-all, end-all.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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