Montgomery, Prince George's slash budgets

By Michael Laris and Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Maryland's two largest counties outlined spending cuts Monday that would reach from children's health clinics to nursing homes, slice tens of millions of dollars in education spending and furlough thousands of public employees.

Drop-offs in revenue and in expected state aid are forcing officials in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, home to nearly a third of the state's population, to confront some of the same unforgiving math that has caused governments across the Washington region to propose cuts to popular programs and safety-net services.

Counties across Northern Virginia, from Arlington west to Loudoun, face a patchwork of deep cuts and tax increases. Officials in Fairfax County are pushing layoffs, school cuts and a property tax increase. The District is facing an estimated $500 million budget gap in fiscal 2011 while continuing to grapple with $200 million in spending pressures for the current fiscal year.

On the state level, Virginia leaders agreed on a budget late Sunday that cuts millions out of core services, including education, health care and public safety. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed near equal parts budget cuts and one-time transfers and other financial maneuvers to close an estimated $2 billion budget gap.

In Montgomery, one of the nation's richest counties, officials who had become accustomed to managing rising budgets are overseeing a painful and unfamiliar reversal. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) proposed a $4.3 billion spending plan that cuts the total government budget for the first time in more than 40 years. It calls for cuts across government operations, furloughs of many employees and a budget for schools that is $137 million less than they requested, which comes in below state requirements.

Montgomery's programs to help elderly and disabled residents in their homes and to reach out to the homeless would be scaled back. Library hours would shrink. Road repairs would be delayed. And the average household would still be hit with a $3-a-month increase in the energy tax, raising $50 million needed to help offset sagging income tax revenue. The county also would use more than $100 million from its rainy day fund to help the county get through the current fiscal year.

Faced with revenue shortfalls and large potential reductions in state aid, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) proposed cuts to most agencies, a continued hiring freeze and furloughs of county employees for the third straight year -- a cost-saving measure that has spawned protests, legal battles and the continued anger of employee unions.

The $3.1 billion total budget represents a drop of 1.2 percent from last year, and Johnson has proposed large cuts to certain agencies, including the health department and the department of public works and transportation. Because of a continued hiring freeze, as many as 1,000 of the government's 6,000 positions could remain vacant this year, officials said.

'Pain in this budget'

The proposed budget cuts in Montgomery, which require county approval, reflect not just the recession but also decisions made by officials over many years. Salaries and benefits have risen sharply over the past decade. "There is pain in this budget, for our county and for our county employees," Leggett told subdued county employees and others gathered in a Rockville auditorium Monday. The total budget is down 3.8 percent. "There are some things we will do differently, and some things we will not do at all."

To help close a gap that had reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Leggett also proposes giving no pay increase to county employees this year. His decision came despite a county labor arbitrator ruling this month saying that he had to give most police employees a raise.

Leggett also proposed eliminating 232 filled government jobs. Officials said they would try to prevent many of the workers from being laid off by finding them other positions. Leggett wants the county council to pass a buyout plan to nudge workers to retire early. He also called for 10 days of furloughs for non-public safety employees, a step the county had until now avoided.

"The county's position is they are just going to take what is necessary, and we don't feel that way," said Tony Thomas, a county printer who has worked for Montgomery for 31 years and is executive vice president of the union representing general government workers.

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