$70 million more in budget cuts proposed for Montgomery

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

Sparsely used bus routes across Montgomery County would be shut down, dozens of county workers would lose their jobs and schools would take a significant hit as part of $70 million in midyear budget cuts being proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett.

It's a rare second batch of cuts in the county's adopted $4.47 billion budget, on top of about $30 million in trims made after it was passed last year. Officials said the job cuts and other reductions proposed in this round highlight the severity of a budget gap for the next fiscal year, which is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Leggett (D) said the $70 million reduction would be part of a "down payment" on addressing the bigger financial problems facing the county. He sent the recommendations to the County Council, which can make revisions.

"This is just the first round of what will be a very painful process," Leggett said. "We still have a huge gap to go."

Officials have said the gap could reach about $600 million, but that includes more than $150 million in wage and cost-of-living increases for county employees and other spending that is the subject of debate and negotiation.

Leggett has proposed reductions throughout the government. Public libraries would lose $1 million and have to buy fewer books. Four miles of road would not be resurfaced, saving $437,000 but also "requiring more costly rehabilitation/reconstruction efforts in the future," according to county budget documents. The fire and rescue department would delay its spring recruiting class, saving $1.4 million but slowing the replacement of employees who might leave.

Leggett is also recommending the school system cut $22 million, a politically volatile proposal in a community in which education is government's top priority. The schools would face smaller reductions than the government overall. Although schools are responsible for more than half of all spending, they would shoulder less than a third of the $70 million savings. School officials said their options for finding the money are limited.

"An additional $22 million is going to be tough to come by," said Board of Education member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), noting that the schools saved $10 million as part of the county's earlier round of midyear cuts.

"Kids are in school. We're obligated to meet a certain amount of days, 180 days," she said. "You can't be laying off teachers."

Budget analysts worked from a set of general targets reflecting county priorities. They were trying for 3 percent cuts in the budgets of departments outside of public safety and Health and Human Services; those two areas had a 1 percent goal. It didn't always happen. Police cuts, for example, totaled 2.8 percent.

Some of the social service cuts would come in areas in which funds had previously been "underutilized" or experienced "historical underspending," according to county documents. That includes more than $180,000 in savings on a homeless health program, and $110,000 on health-care services for youths, who would be directed to school health centers instead.

An after-school program for at risk youths, the Seneca Valley Sports Academy, would be shut, affecting about 80 high-schoolers. Although they would have access to academic support, the draw of sports would be gone. "Teens would not have the safe, supervised, planned activities to attend after school," according to a county description of the cuts.

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