Leggett orders Montgomery departments to make cuts in face of $300 million shortfall

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:27 AM

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has instructed the heads of most county departments to begin searching for cuts of 15 percent as officials project a shortfall of more than $300 million.

Leggett (D) also called Thursday for $19 million in cuts to the public school system as part of a proposed midyear "savings plan" that would reduce ambulance service and eliminate home heating subsidies for thousands of poor residents. Hundreds of layoffs are possible next year, and numerous programs will shrink or be eliminated, officials said.

Officials overseeing public safety, health and human services, and transit programs were given a target of 5 percent.

Effects of the cuts, the result of a stark mismatch between shriveling tax revenue and the growing costs of employee benefits, will be felt across the county of nearly 1 million residents. Officials overseeing everything from housing and libraries to recreation and the environment were told to trim their already shrinking budgets.

Although federal spending and contracting have helped cushion the Washington region from the full effects of the nation's economic pain, other local jurisdictions are also facing an intensified fiscal squeeze.

"It's going to be really, really painful," said Gabriel Albornoz, director of Montgomery's Recreation Department. "There's not very much left."

Since Albornoz arrived in Montgomery in 2007, his career staff has gone from 172 to 99 employees. Starting in the new year, rec centers will be closed the equivalent of one day a week, throwing off schedules for volleyball and badminton players and community groups. Albornoz said he expects that programs for senior citizens and at-risk youths will be cut as well. "The thought of more is sobering," he said.

An unexpectedly sharp drop-off in projected income tax receipts this year and next - coming after a decade in which spending on employee medical and retirement benefits soared by more than 120 percent - has left a deep hole in Montgomery's finances, six months after a tumultuous round of reductions.

"I wish I could say to you that our difficulties are easing, but this is not the case," Leggett said in an e-mail Thursday to county employees.

Departments have two to three weeks to submit their proposed cuts to Leggett's budget staff in preparation for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Like Montgomery, the District is grappling with shortfalls. It faces a $188 million budget gap for the rest of fiscal 2011 and an estimated $345 million gap in fiscal 2012 - a scenario that has council members discussing a possible bump in the income tax rate.

Fairfax County is in relatively good shape, with an estimated $55 million shortfall in the next fiscal year. Although county officials have not been given a specific target, they have been asked to find cuts that would work out on average to about 1 percent of spending, said Susan Datta, director of Fairfax's Department of Management and Budget.

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