Leggett To Offer Cautious Budget

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett will unveil his first budget tomorrow, proposing hiring more police officers and firefighters, adding money for more moderate-income housing and funding most of the $137 million increase sought by the school system.

In an interview last week, Leggett said he would increase overall spending "more than 6 percent" without raising taxes in his $4 billion budget plan.

If the County Council approves the proposal, Leggett, who took office in December, will have delivered on a campaign pledge to support an array of programs without asking residents to pay higher taxes for services.

Leggett noted that although he hopes to spend more on government services, the rate of the spending increase is lower than the 9 percent then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) gave to many county agencies last year. The council, in a recent 5 to 4 vote, also showed a reluctance to raise limits on county spending.

The slowdown is needed, Leggett said, because of continued pressures on the county's treasury, which faces a nearly $200 million projected shortfall.

That stems from a combination of factors, including the need to fully fund some programs that started last year, a likely dip in expected school funding from the state, and a $30 million increase for retirement funds mandated under new federal rules.

Leggett also has signaled that he is willing to take what could be a politically risky course by rebuffing the school system's request for a nearly $137 million increase in its budget. Although he did not provide specifics, sources familiar with the plan said he will offer about $117 million for the school system, which recently approved negotiated salary increases of almost $70 million. The sources requested anonymity so they don't preempt Leggett's announcement.

Schools officials asked for nearly $2 billion, or about half the county's operating budget.

"We are growing the budget," said Leggett, discussing the broad outlines of his proposal in his Rockville office. "The question is the way we grow."

His task grew more complicated last week, he said, after state lawmakers said they will likely delay funding of extra school funds for Montgomery and Prince George's counties in the face of a looming state budget deficit.

When fully phased in, the plan, part of the Thornton Commission's proposal to equalize education funding statewide, would steer an additional $34.7 million a year to Montgomery.

Schools spokesman Brian Edwards said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast would wait for tomorrow's official budget release to comment. But Edwards said it "would be disappointing" if Leggett chose "not to fully fund the school system budget like his predecessor, who regularly funded the budget at nearly 100 percent levels." He said the public schools "have shown that the investment we have made produced exceptional results."

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