Correction to This Article
This story originally said the song that got a standing ovation at the ceremony was "America the Beautiful." It was "God Bless America." This version has been corrected.

At inauguration, Montgomery executive Leggett makes budget his top priority

By Michael Laris and Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 6, 2010; 10:26 PM

American politics has left behind a list of catchphrases that capture the personalities and dramas of their time. The sign on President Harry S. Truman's desk read: "The Buck Stops Here." President Ronald Reagan had "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Obama relied on "Hope."

In an interview ahead of his inauguration to a second term, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) described his priorities for the next four years and stumbled upon what might be his own low-key but lasting entry: "Budget sustainability, budget sustainability, budget sustainability."

At a scaled-down swearing-in before hundreds of people and 15 potted chrysanthemums lining the stage at Rockville High School on Monday, Leggett and nine members of the County Council took in the ceremony: There was a standing ovation for a soaring rendition of "God Bless America." Leaders grasped hands in prayer. Leggett and his grandchildren gathered for pictures afterward.

But as students packed up the chairs later, the tough reality of what is facing the county and its leadership returned.

One of the nation's wealthiest counties is facing a budget shortfall of more than $300 million - and the prospect of cuts to schools, ambulance service and programs for senior citizens. And that's just to get things rolling. In the coming weeks and months, new waves of residents and county workers are going to feel just what it means when a county accustomed to generous spending is forced to pull back from what many leaders thought was a limitless future.

"I don't know whether we're going to be laying off people before Christmas or after Christmas, but we're certainly going to wind up laying off people," said County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large). "What we're about to embark on is actually a reduction of services and people losing jobs."

But Elrich said Leggett struck the right tone in his address, which sought to focus on the county's resilience as a guide. "Everyone's come to grips with the fact that there's no way out," Elrich said. "You can't wallow in your misery. You've got to figure out, 'How do we get to the next place?' "

Leggett spoke of the pain that has hit some in Montgomery.

"Some of those living close to the edge slipped over, while others moved nearer to that line," Leggett said. "There were dreams deferred - and dreams lost. If our county has been spared the worst of these challenges, you know we have not been spared altogether."

But Leggett also sought to move the conversation forward, quoting President John F. Kennedy as saying, " 'Our task is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future.' " Resolving "the unthinkable challenges" of the economy takes a "culture of giving and serving" among those in the community and halls of government alike, he said.

Leggett pointed to individuals who took initiative, among them Seth Goldman, the small-business owner from Montgomery who developed the popular drink Honest Tea, and Sue Miller of Damascus, who rallied residents to help spruce up her town's public buildings.

He also saluted the sacrifices made by county employees who were furloughed this year.

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