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Montgomery County Council endorses final components of budget

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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

After spending weeks grinding through a review of painful cuts and listening to pleas from a variety of groups for a reprieve, the Montgomery County Council on Thursday endorsed the final pieces of a $4.3 billion budget that cuts overall spending for the first time in decades and includes a plan that would also furlough police officers and firefighters.

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Now they face a pair of new tests.

On Monday, a pair of council members will join a county delegation headed to New York City to try to convince financial analysts that Montgomery has the wherewithal and discipline to improve its fiscal standing into the future. And in the coming months, county officials will try to convince Montgomery residents of the same thing.

"We cannot be all things to all people. If we haven't gotten this message yet, after all we've been through, shame on us," said council member George Leventhal (D-At Large). The county, added council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda), has "laid the groundwork for getting to the place where our fiscal house is in order, where we do have a sustainable budget."

Montgomery's officials are heading to Wall Street with news that the just-minted budget will increase the county's reserves, and that the council on Thursday endorsed a range of modest salary cuts for about 10,000 employees after many years of significant raises.

"Those are tough decisions to be making in a strong labor environment in an election year," said Timothy Firestine, County Executive Isiah Leggett's chief administrative officer. "They are going to take any actions they have to sustain us fiscally" after a severe recession.

The budget endorsed Thursday will raise reserves and the county's rainy day fund to 6 percent of major governmental revenue. Moody's bond rating agency last month put the county on a watch list for possible downgrade, in part because Montgomery leaned heavily on its reserves as it hobbled through the current fiscal year. Losing its coveted and cost-reducing Aaa rating would be expensive and humiliating for a wealthy county with ambitious plans to borrow money to build schools and other government projects.

The council also adjusted Leggett's plan to furlough employees, making it progressive. Those earning less than $50,000 will have three unpaid days off. Those earning $50,000 to $100,000 will have five furlough days. Those earning more than $100,000 will have eight. Police and firefighters are now also covered, along with general government employees. In all, those furloughs would save $10.7 million. Employees at Montgomery College, and those at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission will have furloughs as well, but public schools officials say they will not.

County officials are also recommending that Montgomery adopt a long-term goal of 10 percent reserves, according to a draft of the proposal being taken to New York. Officials said it could take as long as 10 years to get there.

The budget endorsed in a straw poll Thursday must still be finalized next Thursday. It makes significant cuts across county government, including libraries, health and human services and recreation programs.

"The council has adopted about 99 percent of everything we requested," Leggett said. "We made a strong recommendation, they accepted it, and I think that speaks very well."

The council did add or restore about $15 million outlined on their "reconciliation" list. They restored some funds to Montgomery Cares, a health program for the uninsured. Payments to many human-services nonprofit groups will drop 5 percent rather than 7 percent. Cuts in tax breaks for the poor will be moderated.

"I stay focused on the little people and those who assist them," said council member Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At Large). She said her son Walter is a recovering schizophrenic, and time on a visit with him reminded her of the need to have sympathy along with fiscal toughness. "The Walters of the world depend on both our compassion and our wisdom."


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