Big Surplus Comes at a Good Time for Duncan

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Montgomery County's coffers are overflowing with a surplus of at least $300 million. And in a year in which he is running for governor, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is spending it on schools, police and fire protection and an array of other services.

Duncan won't formally unveil his $3.9 billion budget proposal for the coming fiscal year until today. But he has devoted much of the past month to rolling out more than $100 million in new programs, with reducing traffic and promoting public transportation high on his list.

Duncan's supporters say spending on important public services has always been a priority. But this year, he has taken extra care to highlight that spending in scripted events designed for maximum media exposure. The events are meant to distinguish Duncan from his rivals in the race for governor -- Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) -- and have often taken on a political tone.

This week, Duncan was surrounded by charts, books, students and elected officials when he appeared at Bethesda Elementary School to say he would boost school funding by 7.8 percent. Last week, against a backdrop of police officers, firefighters, sheriff deputies, a police dog and flashing police lights, he proposed adding nearly 200 public safety positions.

Montgomery's wealth has given Duncan -- who trails O'Malley, his opponent for the Democratic nomination, in polls, fundraising and name recognition -- a platform to criticize O'Malley's record on crime and education.

"I got a record on investing in education and have results to show for it," Duncan said in response to a reporter's question this week. "He has a record of investing in crime fighting and doesn't have a record to show for it."

While Duncan and Ehrlich are using next year's sunny financial outlook to highlight election year priorities, O'Malley remains hamstrung by Baltimore's tax base, which is just starting to stabilize after years of decline.

"We have made incredible progress in Baltimore on tough challenges and limited resources," said Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, noting that the city implemented full-day kindergarten in all schools before Montgomery did. "The challenges we face here are clearly different than those the people of Montgomery face. . . . It is sad Doug Duncan doesn't realize that."

In Montgomery, the biggest challenge this year appears to be how to divvy up the money.

Duncan has agreed to fully fund the school system's $1.8 billion operating budget and its six-year, $1.2 billion capital budget. Duncan also has proposed double-digit increases for public safety and transportation programs, and he wants to double the amount spent on Montgomery Cares, which helps uninsured residents pay for health care.

Duncan also plans to propose a cut in the property tax rate of 9 1/2 cents next year, and for the first time in four years, the county executive has stuck to a voter-imposed limit on property tax revenue.

The rate cut would provide about $400 a year in relief to the owner of a $400,000 home. If the cut is approved by the council, Montgomery will have one of the lowest property tax rates in the state, behind only Talbot and Worchester counties.

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