4.3% Budget Increase Passes in Montgomery

By Ann E. Marimow and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 23, 2008

The Montgomery County Council signed off yesterday on a $4.3 billion budget that will increase homeowners' property tax bills about 13 percent on average. Residents will also pay more to keep the lights on, buy Ride On bus passes and park in public lots in Wheaton and Silver Spring.

Spending for Montgomery's public schools will rise 4.1 percent, but the increase is less than what the system requested. In response, Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast outlined for the first time yesterday how he will deal with a leaner budget.

"I expect these reductions will be painful, but we will do everything we can to minimize the impact on classrooms," he wrote in a memo yesterday to the Board of Education, which is scheduled to review his recommendations next month.

Weast proposed scaling back plans to add assistant principals at 10 elementary schools and to hire elementary school guidance counselors and parent community coordinators. But he recommended funding middle school initiatives to seed magnet programs, accelerate math and reading instruction and train teachers.

Overall county spending will rise 4.3 percent, the smallest increase in at least 12 years and a reflection of a slowdown in revenue growth related to weakened housing and employment markets.

Although the council approved the budget unanimously, there were signs of lingering dissatisfaction with the path chosen to close a projected shortfall of nearly $300 million. Before reaching a tentative deal last week, the council was deadlocked over whether to revise labor union contracts that provide most general government workers with raises of 8 percent.

"This is not a budget to celebrate," council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said, looking back on the deliberations. "I, for one, had wanted a budget that embraced a greater sense of shared sacrifice. But the only hope we had of obtaining that result was if all the parties were prepared to participate, and that was clearly not the case."

In private meetings with County Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) in recent weeks, union leaders had discussed ways that employees could help trim spending. The leader of the county's largest employee union, Gino Renne, said yesterday that his members had been prepared to go back to the bargaining table if directed to by the council. He said his members would have reluctantly considered phasing in scheduled pay raises.

"We were anticipating a struggle during the budget process," Renne said. "We try to be pragmatic."

To close a budget gap five years ago, leaders of the unions representing county government and school system employees agreed to defer pay raises for several months.

But it became clear to the council this year that the school system, which accounts for half the budget, would probably not go along. Board of Education President Nancy Navarro (Northeastern County) told the council in testimony last week that she would not vote to roll back raises for school employees, whom she called "our most strategic investment."

Several council members said it would be unfair to try to reduce raises for county government workers when the panel lacks the authority to revise contracts for school employees, who negotiate with the school board.

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