Montgomery County raises various taxes

By Michael Laris and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 20, 2010

A month after the IRS deadline, Tax Day came again Wednesday in Montgomery County.

The County Council, trying to balance a budget squeezed by sagging income tax revenue and far-reaching expenditures, passed a long list of money-raising measures to help cover the county's $4.3 billion spending plan.

Council members raised the energy tax by more than 80 percent, increased cellphone taxes by 75 percent, and imposed a tax on carbon emissions at a local power plant. They also passed a new ambulance fee that had been debated in the county for seven years.

"Welcome to the May 19 revenue day of the Montgomery council," said the council president, Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), at the start of a day of closed-door meetings, impassioned public debate and brinksmanship.

It was also the day the council voted to give Montgomery's public schools their allotted budget cut. After adjusting for a one-time debt payment in the current budget, the schools' operating budget will be reduced about $20 million next year and $4.7 million more will come out of capital projects. The total school budget is more than $2 billion. School officials noted that they had requested a significantly higher amount, and that enrollment is increasing.

"It will be painful, and it will be harmful," Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said.

The school system and council were deadlocked early Wednesday, but after they reached an agreement, school officials dropped a threat to sue the council over the cuts.

Weast ruled out furloughs, which are being imposed in other county agencies, saying that school employees were forgoing all raises and that there would be deep educational harm if they were made to take time off.

Class sizes are already scheduled to rise one student on average, and millions of dollars in cuts have been made to the central office, officials said. "We will now concentrate on how to operationalize these cuts," Weast said.

Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said schools officials control what cuts are made. "The children will not be hurt in this budget," Ervin said. The Board of Education must find ways to cut, she said, "without hurting classroom instruction or programs. We know that can be done."

The tax increases the council passed to maintain generous spending on schools and other programs were assailed by a number of county advocates.

"It's an easy way out," said Joan Fidler, a retired Environmental Protection Agency official who is president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. "As taxpayers, we do believe in good public schools. But we believe the cuts should be at least proportional," and many other parts of the county government are facing much deeper cuts.

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