Montgomery County council spending comes back to haunt

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

A history of go-go spending by incumbents on the Montgomery County council has given a fat target to opponents in the Sept. 14 primary. Over their terms in office, they've boosted spending -- and repeatedly hiked taxes to keep up. Sensing opportunity, Democratic challengers have embraced the rhetoric of fiscal prudence the way old-timey Hollywood politicians might embrace an adorable baby.

Warning that "the piggy bank is empty," challenger Becky Wagner slammed the county's "unchecked spending and piecemeal approach of tax increases." Economist Jane de Winter accused council members of being "disconnected" from looming crashes in the housing and stock market and blamed fiscal troubles on decisions that "were not forward-looking." Ilaya Hopkins gave incumbent Roger Berliner an "F" on her report card for "fiscal responsibility."

But Montgomery's years of generous government spending have often gone toward feeding a voracious appetite among the community at large -- and, at times, the challengers themselves. Some have repeatedly come calling to the council for money to underwrite a series of causes, from anti-poverty programs to the schools, complicating their campaign critiques.

"We are tapping every resource and stretching our dollars as far as they will go -- but the increase in utilities, gasoline and health care (up 26%) is eating away at our low administrative overhead cost of 4%," Wagner wrote the council in 2006. As executive director of a coalition of congregations that provides help to the poor, Wagner sought money for home aides for the elderly, case workers for the homeless, and a furniture exchange.

As her group worked to meet growing needs, she wrote, "we look to you for additional revenues to make that happen."

In 2008, Wagner warned of an impending drop-off in donations and rising infrastructure costs. "We are having problems 'keeping the lights on,' " she wrote to county officials. And last year, Wagner sought funds to prevent evictions and utility cutoffs for clients, among other things.

Council member George Leventhal (D-At Large), who appeared at an early fundraiser for Wagner and has been an ideological ally in seeking funds for the poor, bristled at the challengers' austerity messages.

"When you hear candidates say, 'You should have known the shock was coming,' ask them where they were," Leventhal said. "Was she telling us, 'I know it's coming. You've got to spend less on social workers and nurses?' No, she wasn't."

"Ask Jane de Winter, president of the county council of parent-teacher associations for years: Was she asking us to spend less on the schools, less on compensation for teachers? No, she wasn't," Leventhal said.

Wagner has argued that her experience making payroll for more than 100 employees and going line by line through her $4 million budget give her insights.

"It is my fiduciary responsibility representing my organization to advocate if funds are being given out by the county," Wagner said. "It is the county council's responsibility to be the fiduciary agent for the taxpayer."

Wagner took a leave of absence from the group, now called Interfaith Works, in June to campaign. It has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in council grants since she took over in 1999, and millions of dollars in county contracts through the county's procurement department, she said.

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