By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett plans to propose a budget Monday that eliminates hundreds of government jobs and gives no cost-of-living pay raises to public employees. Some county buses would run less frequently under the proposal, he said yesterday, and residents would probably confront longer lines to check out library books and to receive some health services.
Leggett (D) said the budget blueprint, which must be voted on by the County Council this spring, protects spending for police and emergency services and does not raise property tax revenue above the county's charter limit, which ties increases to the rate of inflation.
In an interview with The Washington Post editorial board, the county executive said he would cut "several hundred" of the 10,000 government jobs through layoffs, early retirement incentives and attrition. His budget, he said, would not include planned cost-of-living raises for police, firefighters and general government workers. School system employees agreed late last year to part with a 5 percent cost-of-living raise to save $89 million.
Faced with a decline in income tax and real estate tax receipts that has rocked local government finances across the region, Leggett said he would propose a spending increase of less than 2 percent -- the smallest year-to-year rise since 1992.
"We need to rein in spending," Leggett said.
About two-thirds of county government and school system workers would receive annual step raises based on years of service, though.
To help close a projected $520 million shortfall -- about 13 percent of the $4 billion budget -- Leggett said he expects to set aside a smaller reserve fund and provide smaller down payments for covering the cost of health-care benefits for retirees.
Despite objections from the majority of council members, Leggett's plan also relies on the creation of an ambulance transport fee that he said would raise about $15 million and is similar to fees charged in the District and Prince George's and Fairfax counties. The council has resisted his proposal to charge a fee for ambulance transport, which would be paid by health insurance companies, not residents.
For Montgomery's schools, Leggett said he would provide 99 percent of Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's budget request. Under Leggett's plan, however, county officials would seek a waiver from the Maryland State Board of Education to reduce one of Montgomery's annual education funding obligations. If Leggett is successful, the school system would receive less money from the county but the same level of funding overall because of an infusion from the federal stimulus package. The move, Leggett said, would free up as much as $50 million to stave off deeper cuts to other areas of county government.
Last year, the County Council signed off on a budget that raised property tax bills for the average homeowner by about 13 percent and left labor union contracts untouched. It was the fourth time in 17 years that the council had voted to exceed the county's charter limit on property tax increases.
This year, Leggett said he would not surpass the limit, and the council has fewer legal options to balance the books. Voters, uneasy with the county's fiscal policies, embraced a ballot measure last fall that requires the vote of all nine council members to break the limit. With the death of council member Don Praisner on Jan. 30, there are eight council members, and Praisner's successor will not take office until after the budget vote.
Even if the council stays at the charter limit, property tax bills for the average homeowner would rise by about the rate of inflation, as the limit allows. Homeowners would also see a $13 increase in an annual charge for storm water management under Leggett's plan.