The Montgomery County Council is ready to give residents broad property tax relief next year by cutting tens of millions of dollars from County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's proposed budget.
There is still no consensus on the size of the tax-rate reduction or the budget cuts that will be needed to pay for it. But during a robust debate yesterday, council members who had refused to consider reductions of any kind acknowledged that Duncan's proposed 2-cent cut in the property tax rate is too small.
"I think it is pretty clear we are going to reduce the budget -- and we are going to reduce the budget substantially," said council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), one of the members who had been most reluctant to entertain deep cuts.
Perez's comments reflect a growing disenchantment on the council over the size of Duncan's record $3.6 billion budget proposal. It calls for 225 new positions in county government and represents the largest percentage increase in spending -- 10 percent -- in at least a decade.
Duncan is the first county executive in at least 25 years to fully fund the combined budget requests of the school system, Montgomery College and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, analysts said.
He also is proposing an 80 percent increase in arts funding over last year and $66 million for new initiatives to address such issues as access to health care and affordable housing.
Council members' concern was heightened last week by Stephen B. Farber, the council's staff director, who said in a briefing that Duncan's budget is so large that it may be difficult to sustain without large tax increases in the future.
Farber noted that many of the costs associated with the new positions Duncan is requesting will continue to mount, meaning they are even more expensive than they may appear to be.
As Duncan prepares to run for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, some council members say the county executive has failed to make the tough budget decisions.
"We all would like to fund everything. . . . But the real question for me is where is the tipping point?" council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said yesterday.
"I think it is a good budget," said Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, the county's budget director.
"It provides tax relief and continues the investment in Montgomery County for education, public safety and health care," Swaim-Staley said.
During yesterday's debate, four council members -- Perez, at-large Democrats Steven A. Silverman and George L. Leventhal, and Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) -- endorsed a nonbinding proposal to cut $26 million from Duncan's spending plan to trim the property tax rate by 3.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Four other members -- Floreen, Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) -- backed a separate recommendation to trim $67 million from the budget.