Leggett's Proposed Cuts Raise Concerns

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

Teenagers who ride county buses for free, low-income seniors who rely on taxicab vouchers for transportation, preschoolers in Langley Park and firefighters in Glen Echo and Gaithersburg are among the Montgomery County residents who would be affected by midyear budget cuts meant to narrow a record shortfall.

Council members and residents are raising concerns about the impact of County Executive Isiah Leggett's $23.6 million in proposed trims for the current fiscal year, a first step in tackling a record $401 million projected gap.

In announcing the reductions just before Christmas, Leggett (D) acknowledged that the cuts would be painful, but he cautioned, "Any deferral in making hard choices now will only make our work more difficult in the spring."

On Thursday, Leggett announced a freeze in county hiring for at least the next five months, giving himself a cushion as he tries to close the shortfall -- nearly 10 percent of the total budget.

"We're trying to do everything possible to hit that target," said Timothy Firestine, Leggett's chief administrative officer. "The year is ticking by, and the more time we spend talking about or readjusting the savings plan, that's less money available."

Nearly half of Leggett's cuts, which the council will review Jan. 15, would come from the county's departments with the largest budgets: Health and Human Services, Public Works and Transportation, and the police and fire departments.

Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr. has proposed $3.7 million in reductions, which would redeploy firefighters and equipment throughout the county and scale back overtime hours, prompting questions from the council and the community about how quickly the department would be able to respond to emergencies.

Under the plan, some firefighters assigned to stations in Glen Echo and Laytonsville at night and on weekends would be transferred to Gaithersburg and Kensington. The arrival of a ladder truck in Hillandale would be delayed, and a rescue squad with career staff in Germantown would be eliminated.

Council members Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said they are concerned about slowing down response times when the county is opening new fire stations and Montgomery's population is approaching 1 million.

"I don't believe that we should be taking short-term budget actions which could literally affect life and death," Berliner said. "This is among the most basic services provided by county government."

Jeffrey Hearle, president of the board that oversees the Glen Echo station, equated the proposal to "robbing Peter to pay Paul" and said it could have a ripple effect in neighboring Potomac and Bethesda. He suggested that Leggett look for additional administrative cuts.

"Everyone deserves a basic level of service," said Hearle, who has started a Save Our Ambulance e-mail campaign. "It's saying our citizens are less important than those in other areas."

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