Montgomery revenue off, budget officials rethink values
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The boom was good for Montgomery County.
In the four years before the recession began in late 2007, revenue increased more than $1 billion and spending jumped nearly as much. Public schools were showered with resources, public employees were paid generously, the uninsured were given health coverage and the poor were given tax breaks.
Now officials are scrambling not to run out of money by June 30.
They're trying to retroactively double the local energy tax, starting two weeks ago. They've used up most of their rainy-day fund. And they're cutting off hundreds of contracts, saving $148,056 on locksmiths, $7,301 in the cost of chemicals for a Germantown pool and $1,000 on dead-animal disposal.
Montgomery is one of the nation's richest counties, but now economic realities are closing in on a political culture accustomed to ever-rising budgets and government generosity, forcing officials and the public to face an uncomfortable and unfamiliar future.
Communities across the country, Montgomery's neighbors among them, are feeling the aftereffects of the recession. District officials are considering a levy on soda and higher taxes on the wealthy. Fairfax County raised its property tax rate and dipped into reserves to avoid some cuts.
That Montgomery officials are having to scrounge their way out of the fiscal year is a sign of how far things have fallen.
"When there's a lot of money, it's fun to give it away," said Nancy Dacek, a former PTA leader who served on the Montgomery County Council for a dozen years, including during a major downturn in the early 1990s.
"This is a very caring county. We are concerned about our neighborhoods. We are concerned about our schools. We always have been, and that's a good thing," Dacek said. "But we can't say no, either, and we're going to have to do that."
This week, for the first time in more than four decades, the council is scheduled to vote on a budget that is smaller than the one it passed the year before. How Montgomery got here, and how it decides to spend the billions of dollars it does have, are questions that go beyond grants and salary levels and the thousands of lines of fiscal minutiae in the thick budget book under debate. They go to the county's values. "The budget is a moral document," said Joy Nurmi, a community affairs official and former council staffer.
Spending, cutting mix
The guide to the future has its own linguistic cues and telltale verbs. Department lists in the budget fall under "Decrease," which is meant to convey cuts with little or no direct effect on people. Then there's "Reduce" and, to a smaller degree, "Eliminate." There are also increases and the vast middle of continued spending.
The picture that emerges in the $4.3 billion budget is a mishmash: painful cuts to good programs; cuts of things that should have been gone a long time ago; and continued spending -- especially on salaries and benefits -- that creates a disconnect between the size of government and the county's ability to pay for it.