Montgomery County faces $140 million shortfall for next year's budget

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 10:33 PM

Just four months after piecing together a trimmed-down budget, and three months after pledging a new, more conservative approach to managing billions of dollars in tax receipts, Montgomery County officials began wrestling Tuesday with an unpleasant new number: $140 million.

That's the amount that county budget wonks say - albeit with a slew of caveats - that the county looks to be coming up short in next year's budget.

That might not seem like a particularly urgent concern, given that it's nearly six months until a proposed budget will be released. But county budget experts point out that the county school system, the biggest component of Montgomery's $4.27 billion budget, will unveil its latest request for additional funds in December.

Figuring out how to cover those and other increased costs will be a challenge at a time when the best verb that the county's chief economist can come up with to describe Montgomery's economy is "treading."

The $140 million figure is also somewhat tricky because it appears a little more than a month from the Nov. 2 general election. While Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 21/2 to 1 in Montgomery, the county also has a large pool of independent voters.

County political observers said that Republican upsets are unlikely, but some emphasized that GOP candidates running on platforms of fiscal prudence could find a broader audience. How that might translate to votes could be affected by everything from the national political mood to the appeal of individual personalities.

Some Republican challengers say incumbents on the all-Democratic, nine-member county council have proved all too willing to approve large tax increases. The Republican candidates say they are the only politicians standing between residents and large property tax increases sometime in the next term, a notion that the incumbents dispute.

In 2008, the council voted to exceed a local limit on property tax receipts and hiked property taxes by 13 percent. Ire over that vote helped lead to the passage of a referendum requiring all nine votes to break the so-called charter limit, which caps the increase in property tax receipts countywide at the rate of inflation plus the value of new construction. Republican activist Robin Ficker was behind the referendum, which prevailed despite widespread opposition from Montgomery officials.

Now Ficker is running in council District 2 to be, he said, the single vote needed to block property tax increases beyond the charter limit. "I would vote to stop them," Ficker said.

So is Rob Vricella, the GOP candidate challenging incumbent Roger Berliner in District 1, which covers Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac.

"I hate to take absolutist positions, because I'm really not that kind of person," Vricella said. But "there's no scenario I can foresee where I would vote to break the charter limit. I think the rate of inflation is good enough," he said.

Vricella said that he expects the council to push for a property tax increase after the election. "The Democrats on the council are going to come under unbelievable pressure from the unions to raise taxes, because that's their constituency," he said.

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