Md. County Budget Blueprints Cut Jobs, Services

By Ann E. Marimow and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Government officials in Maryland's two largest suburbs, faced with deep potential budget shortfalls, yesterday proposed eliminating more than 700 jobs, imposing an additional unpaid furlough in one county and making spending cuts that union officials in both counties pledged to resist.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) recommended shrinking the size of government by 400 jobs, scaling back bus service on more than 20 routes and raising community college tuition. In Prince George's, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) proposed getting rid of more than 300 jobs, forcing workers to take additional unpaid leave and cutting school funding.

Governments throughout the region are contemplating deep cuts and tax increases as income and real estate tax revenue fall, a trend expected to persist into the next budget year.

Leggett's $4.42 billion budget blueprint, which the County Council must vote on, would not raise property tax revenue above the local limit that ties increases to the rate of inflation. Leggett would provide a $690 tax credit for primary residences, but the bill for a median-priced home of $380,000 would still increase nearly 8 percent, or $200.

In confronting a shortfall exceeding $500 million for fiscal 2010, Leggett said residents must adjust expectations for the level of services the county can afford. "It will not be easy, but better days are ahead," Leggett said.

Overall spending would rise 1.9 percent, the smallest year-to-year increase in 18 years. For public schools and Montgomery College campuses, funding would increase 3 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively. To help fund the increase, tuition and fees for college students would rise $3 per credit hour for county residents, $6 for other Maryland residents and $9 for out-of-state students.

Leggett's job-elimination plan would touch nearly every department, including part-time bus drivers, community health nurses and library staff. County workers would not receive planned cost-of-living raises, according to the proposal, although about two-thirds of all employees would still receive annual step raises based on years of service.

Drivers on Montgomery's streets would see the number of stationary speed cameras increase to 60 under Leggett's plan. With the additional cameras, the program is projected to raise $15.7 million for the budget year that begins July 1.

To help balance the books, Leggett would also seek a waiver from an annual state education funding obligation. The move would free up about $50 million while providing the school system with the same overall level of funding because of the federal stimulus package. Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast called the plan "the least painful of all the options for both our system and our taxpayers."

Even before Leggett's announcement, the volunteer firefighters' organization scheduled a news conference to declare his budget "dead on arrival" because it relies on the creation of an ambulance transport fee, which would raise about $14 million.

John Sparks, president of the union representing career firefighters, said he planned to challenge Leggett's decision not to fund pay raises without the union's blessing. Leggett is legally required to fund employee contracts unless the union renegotiates, but Leggett said he feared that the firefighters' position would unravel deals cut with other unions.

Leggett's plan includes some new investments, such as providing health care for 3,000 uninsured residents and nearly $58 million for affordable housing. But the list of trims to health and human services programs is particularly long, with cuts in mental health care for children and some addiction services.

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