Correction to This Article
The article misstated the percentage by which the Montgomery County Council reduced the budget for the county's recreation department. The department's budget for fiscal 2010 was reduced by 5.9 percent, not 57 percent. Funding for the department's after-school RecExtra program was cut by 57 percent.

Montgomery County Council Approves $4.4 Billion Budget

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

Responding to a deep shortfall caused by the financial crisis, Montgomery County elected officials signed off yesterday on a $4.4 billion budget that slashes programs for teenagers and the elderly, scraps cost-of-living raises for workers and raises public parking rates.

The County Council's plan for fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, avoids employee layoffs, increases funds for affordable housing and sticks to the county's limit on the amount the government collects in property tax revenue.

But it was far from a feel-good budget, council members said after the 7 to 1 vote. "There's nothing to feel good about when you're asking, 'What will people miss the least?' " Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said.

Cash-strapped governments across the region are shrinking services as they address falling real estate and income tax revenue, a trend expected to continue into next year. In Fairfax County, officials froze school spending, raised the real estate tax and reduced an affordable housing program.

In Prince George's County, a revised budget that County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) presented to the County Council yesterday would reduce the number of job cuts from 307 to 55. The move would cost the county $15.7 million. The council is scheduled to vote on the $2.6 billion budget next week.

Although Montgomery's council did not exceed the local property tax limit, which ties increases to the rate of inflation, bills will rise for the median-priced home of $380,600 by almost 8 percent, or $201.

In approving a budget that increases spending by 1.2 percent, the council retained the basic outlines of the blueprint recommended in March by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). But the panel also put its stamp on the document, rejecting for a second year Leggett's recommendation to create an ambulance transport fee designed to raise about $14 million by seeking reimbursement from health insurers.

In response to an outcry from mass transit advocates, the council restored bus service on 18 Ride On routes. To help salvage service, the council raised parking prices in Bethesda from 75 cents to $1 an hour for short-term spaces and from $95 to $120 for monthly stickers.

Separately, the council did not embrace Leggett's proposed retirement incentive program. An examination by the county's Office of Legislative Oversight showed that the program would cost at least $17 million over the next decade, a finding Leggett's office disputed.

As to the police department, the council did not approve a labor agreement that would have allowed more than 200 officers who live outside the county to take their patrol cars home. Leggett agreed to propose the take-home plan as part of negotiations in which the union agreed to give up a 4.25 percent raise planned for July.

Among the hardest-hit programs was Montgomery's recreation department. Its funding was cut by 57 percent, including the elimination of a Teen Club. As to the elderly and disabled, the budget discontinued an in-home aid program with a waiting list and reduced respite services for family caregivers for the disabled.

Early in the week, budget plans were in limbo as the council struggled to respond to a last-minute decision by state education officials. The state Board of Education denied the county's request to provide $79.5 million less to local schools than state law requires. To patch the hole, the council voted yesterday to charge the school system that amount to cover debt payments on school facilities projects.

Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), the lone dissenting vote on the budget, said he was concerned that shifting expenses "gives the impression that we're not feeling pain."

Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast was not prepared yesterday to give his blessing to the approach, saying he had "major heartburn" because the council had not guaranteed in writing that the shift was a one-year solution.

Johnson's new spending plan also recommends that the school system reimburse the county for various services it pays for, including the cost of crossing guards and security at high schools, to plug the $23.6 million gap left by the rejection of the education funding waiver. Johnson said the county provides about $40 million in services to the school system, but he recommends that the county get only $23.6 million back from it to "minimize the impact on the board and its operations."

Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

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