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Leggett's best budget efforts haven't halted rise in Montgomery spending

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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's one of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's refrains: His administration has worked to close nearly $2 billion worth of budget gaps since he was sworn into office in December 2006.

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Yet if the recession-era budget Leggett proposed Monday is approved, total government spending will have gone up by $423 million, or 11 percent, on his watch.

That seeming disconnect is part of the struggle over politics and government funding in Montgomery this election year, while county interests, such as advocates for the needy and leaders of public employee unions, work to pull limited resources their way as officials consider Leggett's $4.3 billion budget proposal.

Just how one of the nation's most wealthy counties came to face a seemingly endless string of budget shortfalls, and what its elected leaders have or haven't done about it, is a source of great debate and no small amount of posturing in Montgomery. But what pushed the county into these challenging fiscal straits is simple enough to understand.

"The pressure to spend is always going to be a lot more than the pressure to reduce," said Montgomery's budget director, Joe Beach. "There are always going to be greater needs than your resources. You have that pressure.

"Until you're really confronted" with a historic downturn, Beach added, "you don't really have that countervailing pressure and focus and urgency to bring that down."

The countervailing pressure has arrived in Montgomery.

Income and property taxes and other revenue in a key account were down a staggering $174 million this year from earlier projections, as the recession's effects course though the county. Whether fiscal realities force deep changes to long-standing spending patterns in Montgomery is a question of politics, not mathematics.

Montgomery's government has grown swiftly over the past decade, with county services, the number of employees and payroll size all expanding.

Leggett said he should not be docked for his predecessors' decisions. Overall government spending grew much faster in the beginning and middle of the decade than toward its end. The overall budget grew 9 percent in one year, right before Leggett took office.

Many of those earlier decisions continue to be felt today, as salary, retirement and other costs compound. And there has not been a government-wide appetite for making far-reaching cuts in popular services such as education, health care and transit.

Leggett came into office pushing a theme of renewed fiscal responsibility and trying to moderate the growth in county budgets. "I predicted this," he said, of the consequences of what he saw as the county's unsustainable spending.


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