Montgomery’s Leggett touts financial accomplishments

February 20, 2013

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who says he is still considering whether to seek a third term in 2014, sounded a lot like a candidate in his State of the County speech Tuesday evening, lauding his accomplishments in an attempt to define his legacy.

In his first such address in four years, Leggett said, according to a prepared text made available earlier Tuesday, that he kept the county’s finances from collapsing under the twin burdens of the recession and profligate spending by his predecessor — and possible 2014 challenger, Douglas M. Duncan.

Leggett (D) did not mention Duncan by name. He said, however, that when he took office in 2006 “there were long-standing deficiencies in County finances — years of living beyond our means even during the good times,” citing an average 10 percent growth in spending over the previous four years.

“Simply put, that was not sustainable,” Leggett said. “We were in danger of drowning in red ink because of the perfect storm that consisted of a growing county workforce, ever-increasing service demands and shrinking revenue. All of this occurred before the onset of the national economic recession.”

Leggett said he was willing to make difficult decisions over the past five years, closing $2.5 billion in cumulative budget deficits by eliminating more than 1,000 county jobs, freezing employee wages and requiring that they pay a larger share of health-care and retirement costs.

He said that the approach helped the county through the lean years and that better times were clearly ahead. (Leggett did not mention his proposed two-year 13.5 percent pay increase for most county employees, which will be a part of the 2014 budget he will introduce next month.)

Despite the lingering effects of the recession, he said, unemployment Montgomery is down, and residential and nonresidential construction starts are up.

Median home prices increased about 5 percent last year, Leggett said.

Montgomery executives don’t traditionally give annual State of the County addresses, Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield said, and often just send written reports to the County Council.

But this year, Leggett, eager to frame either a campaign message or a legacy, claimed credit for a number of improvements on his watch that received scant notice in the shadow of the county’s fiscal crises.

These include 8,000 new units of affordable housing, a 19 percent drop in crime from 2007 to 2011, and gains in fire and pedestrian safety. The new ambulance fee, which generated enormous debate before its passage by the council last year, will produce an additional $14 million to $18 million annually, he said, which will result in more emergency medical staffing and lower response times.

But Leggett said continued progress in the county is at risk without state funding for three major transportation projects to help relieve some of the nation’s worst traffic: the light-rail Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton; the Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus rapid-transit link between the Shady Grove Metro station and Clarksburg; and a system of express buses with dedicated lanes that would crisscross the county.

He called on state lawmakers “to do the difficult thing, the courageous thing, the necessary thing,” by passing an increase in the state gasoline tax.

The two-term executive also called for changes to streamline the county’s process for approving new construction projects, which now requires multiple reviews from different agencies, a system the business sector regards as protracted and burdensome.

Dubbing it the county’s new “Open for Business” initiative, he said improvements under consideration could cut as much as a year from development and construction projects.

Leggett also raised the idea that the bi-county planning body created by the state for Montgomery and Prince Georges counties, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, has outlived its usefulness.

“Do we need a cumbersome state/county planning review model that was adopted close to the turn of the century?” he asked. “Beyond that, we need to ask: Do we really need three transportation reviews? Do we really need three environmental reviews cutting across several different agencies?”

Leggett proposed two other new initiatives. One is a redoubled effort to help the school system close the achievement gap separating white and minority students by expanding after-school programs into the summer months.

The other is a push to broaden English language instruction in the county. No estimated costs were mentioned.

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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