In Battle for Funds, Winners and Losers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

After weeks of intense debate, the Montgomery County Council is scheduled to give final approval to the fiscal 2006 budget today.

The council has decided to stick to the charter limit on property taxes for the first time in three years by cutting the property tax rate by 4 cents and extending a $116 tax credit to every homeowner. The voter-imposed charter amendment, which County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) had wanted to exceed by a record $67 million, limits what the county can collect from property taxes to the previous year's total plus the rate of inflation and the cost of new construction. To stick to the limit, the Council cut about $17 million from Duncan's budget and transferred about $32 million from the capital budget.

The debate caused a clash on the council between those who wanted to offer additional property tax relief and those who strived to maintain the county's reputation for generous spending.

With the 2006 elections drawing closer, it's time to address the winners, the losers and the in-betweens of this year's debate.

Winners

Marvin Weinman, Montgomery County Taxpayers League president: If Weinman represents taxpayers, he apparently didn't do a bad job. Weinman sat through hours of the council's budget hearings and offered up several suggestions on how members could save money to stick to the charter limit.

Council members, seeking political cover, asked Weinman to endorse an energy tax increase to offset property tax reductions. The council instead decided to transfer money from the capital budget, but its attempt to woo Weinman proves taxpayers' organizations still have clout in heavily Democratic Montgomery.

Isiah Leggett , former council member: The Democratic candidate for county executive voiced early support for adhering to the charter limit on property taxes, hardly an easy stance for a candidate who has to run in a contested Democratic primary. If the charter limit was not met, he argued, voters might approve an even more restrictive tax cap next year and endanger future funding for the government programs that Democrats strive to protect.

Montgomery County parks: Thanks to Duncan and the council, the county's public parks should soon be cleaner. After the money-saving plan to remove trash cans from the parks two years ago was met with scorn, Duncan restored the funding in the budget this year.

The uninsured: The council and Duncan agreed to increase funding for Montgomery Cares, a program that provides health care to the uninsured. Starting later this year, Montgomery Cares plans to begin offering dental assistance.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg): The maverick council member fought to stick to the charter limit. And unlike some of his colleagues who also advocated broad property tax reductions, Andrews cast some tough votes to control spending, angering the unions by voting against an expensive firefighters contract.

Montgomery School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast : Once again, Weast proves he's as good a politician as he is an administrator. When the council signaled it was going to try to limit spending, Weast used his close working relationship with council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee, to identify a few minor reductions and accounting maneuvers to save money in the school system budget. Weast was then able to say he was sharing in the pain. Some council members had doubts but didn't want to appear as if they don't support schools. The result is a school system that will see a 7 percent increase in its budget.

Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda): The venerable Denis continues to prove he's savvy in the ways of politics. As a Republican who represents a heavily Democratic district, Denis argued early on for funding essential services before trying to offer a broad tax cut. While this stance could have alienated his Republican supporters, Denis seems to have perfected the strategy of playing both sides of the fence. One day he was a strong advocate for the public employees unions' budget interests, the next he was arguing for a delay in the construction of Montrose Parkway to save taxpayers money.

Losers

County human services programs: Just as Duncan started aggressively paying attention to human service needs, the council entered a budget-cutting mode. While some programs for children and the poor were initially on the chopping block, some of the money was restored. But the process showed that social services are among the first to be targeted for cutbacks.

Duncan: Duncan's budget proposal was a winner for many of Montgomery's vulnerable communities. But by failing to make any effort to adhere to the charter limit in a year when the county is flush with additional revenue, Duncan opened himself up to charges he was asking county taxpayers to underwrite his campaign for governor. And by not speaking out in support of his budget until the final weeks, some say he missed an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership skills he says he plans to highlight in his bid for governor. One bright spot for Duncan, however, is that most Maryland voters weren't paying attention to Montgomery's budget debate. Next year could be different.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large): Of the three at-large members likely to seek reelection next year, Leventhal was the most resistant to adhering to the charter limit early on, arguing there was no way to cut tens of millions of dollars from the budget. His stance in itself wouldn't earn him a spot on the losers list. But Leventhal sometimes appeared frazzled and edgy during budget debates and got into a few heated exchanges with his colleagues during public meetings.

The arts: The council eliminated Duncan's Partnership for the Arts and Recreation program, which offers matching grants to arts organizations. The council also scaled back Duncan's proposed funding for a number of regional arts organizations.

Police Chief J. Thomas Manger : The chief failed to convince the council that he needed 52 more officers, resulting in county funding for only 34 of those positions. And some council members deemed Duncan and Manger's gang prevention efforts as not ready for prime time.

Infants: The council decided to cut one of two positions in the car safety-seat program, which teaches parents how to properly install the devices. Since it was created five years ago, nearly 47,000 car seats have been inspected. The program also gave 3,000 car seats to needy families. While some council members saw the program as an example of county government trying to do too much, child advocates note that car seats save lives.

The fiscal 2007 budget: In its effort to offer tax relief in the 2006 budget, the council put off some funding decisions until later this year or next. By adhering to the charter limit in this year's debate, they will have less money to work with for fiscal 2007 unless they exceed the cap. That might be a risky proposition in an election year. And next year, the bond rating agencies might not be so easy on the county if the council decides to mess with future debt-funded capital projects to balance the budget.

Broke Even

Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring): Early in his presidency, Perez misread the council's sentiment for broad tax relief and may have conveyed the wrong impression to Duncan. But once it became clear he didn't have the votes for exceeding the charter limit, Perez managed to harness an unruly council behind a unified plan for sticking to it. While it remains to be seen whether his leadership gives him a platform to launch a statewide campaign, it should help him address some of his other priorities this year, such as the issue of predatory lending.

Robin Ficker, anti-tax activist: For once, the Republican candidate for county executive, who frequently petitions tax-limiting referendums onto the ballot, was on the winning side of an issue. But will the council's decision to stick to the charter limit this year deflate Ficker's efforts to convince voters to approve a more restrictive property tax limit and elect a GOP county executive next year?

Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large): Silverman was outflanked by Leggett, his opponent for the Democratic nomination for county executive next year, on the issue of not exceeding the charter limit. But Silverman's consistent support for increased funding for human service programs should help in the primary. And Silverman, who was instrumental in crafting a final budget solution, didn't appear to offend any of his allies in the business community, which should help him continue his brisk fundraising.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large): Floreen's early and persistent call for sticking to the charter limit forced the rest of the council to go along with her. But her desire for fiscal restraint may have strained her relationship with some council members and Duncan, who was instrumental in getting her elected in 2002.


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