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Leggett’s Montgomery County budget plan would add police officers, library hours

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Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett proposed a $4.8 billion operating budget Friday that would add police officers to streets and schools, restore some library hours and give most county employees their first pay raise in four years.

The spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1 calls for a modest rise in property taxes. The owner of a home assessed at $443,000 — the average value in the county — would pay an additional $80 a year, an increase below the rate of inflation. But for the second year in a row, Leggett (D) proposes to retain a 2010 expansion of the county’s energy tax, which has added about $150 a year to residential bills and $1,400 a year to businesses.

The energy levy was supposed to expire last year. The County Council voted to extend the tax, although it reduced the increase by 10 percent.

The budget, a 4.1 percent increase from the current fiscal year, continues a gradual restoration that Leggett began in 2012 as the economy began to recover from a recession that ravaged local governments across the Washington region. In Montgomery, the loss of tax revenue triggered more than $2 billion in budget shortfalls between fiscal years 2008 and 2012, forcing furloughs, elimination of 1,200 county jobs and cuts in everything from road repairs to recreational facilities.

This year’s budget gap, about $136 million, would be closed with a combination of sources, including higher-than-projected income tax revenue, increased state aid and lower-than-estimated debt service costs.

In a budget message delivered Friday to County Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), Leggett said that painful decisions made in the lean years have positioned the county to recover.

“Our balanced approach to addressing these difficulties has helped bring us out of the worst of this economic crisis,” Leggett said.

Of the 128 positions created by the budget, 104 would be for police and fire personnel. The plan would add 40 new officers and would double from six to 12 the number of “school resource officers” for school security. Montgomery Fire and Rescue Service would see a 5.9 percent increase to 25 new positions.

The library system, which took some of the deepest cuts during the economic downturn, would get a boost. Branches in Poolesville and Long Branch would see hours added or restored. The new funding also would pay for two staff members at the newly renovated Gaithersburg and Olney branches, where hours also will be expanded. Systemwide, library hours would be increased by nearly 10 percent.

Leggett is recommending growth in programs for seniors and at-risk youth. He said he wants to expand Excel Beyond the Bell, an after-school academic program for middle schools, and proposes restoring Senior Mini Trips, a transportation program.

The budget goes to the council, where members have expressed surprise over the size of the pay packages that Leggett negotiated with the county’s police, fire and general employee unions, which call for increases of from 13.5 percent to 19.5 percent during the next two years. They will cost an estimated $31.6 million in fiscal 2014 and $73.7 million in fiscal year 2015.

Leggett, 68, has not announced his plans, but it is widely believed within county political circles that he will run for a third term in 2014. That has led to speculation on the council that the contracts are intended to help smooth his way with Montgomery’s influential public employee unions.

Leggett aides reject that idea and point out that the raises are paltry compared with the savings accrued over the four years of wage freezes and furloughs, which officials place at an estimated $469 million, and to the financial ground workers have lost.

“These pay increases will not reverse the erosion of our employees’ buying power,” Leggett said in his message to Navarro. “It only restores a fraction of the lost wages that they experienced.”

Leggett said he negotiated the raises because binding arbitration — required under the county charter for labor negotiations that reach an impasse — could have resulted in a doubling or tripling of the unions’ financial package.

Two weeks ago, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled against Leggett in cases brought by three county unions challenging his 2011 decision to reject arbitrator-awarded contracts. An attorney for the County Council has said Leggett’s concerns about arbitration are overstated.

Council member Phil Andrews, a candidate for county executive, said he will propose taking $11.4 million of the $31.6 pay package and using it to reduce the energy tax expansion by 10 percent. That would cut pay raises by about a third. “This would treat both the County employees and taxpayers fairly,” Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) said in a statement.

The bulk of the new agency spending in Leggett’s budget goes to K-12 education, public safety and libraries.

Funding for Montgomery County public schools would increase by $55.8 million (2.2 percent). That amount meets the state “maintenance of effort” requirement that per-pupil funding not fall below the previous year’s level.

The Board of Education and Superintendent Joshua P. Starr had requested an additional $10 million, but Leggett said that if the school system wants the money, it should draw on reserves it carried over from previous years totaling about $40 million. School officials said they included $17 million of that money in their 2014 budget proposal.

Starr and Board of Education President Christopher S. Barclay indicated Friday that they would continue to press the council for new county dollars to cover the $10 million.

In a statement, Starr said he was disappointed that Leggett is asking the school system “to use money it has set aside to ensure the long-term financial stability of our school district.”

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