Leggett's Montgomery County budget has something for everyone to fight

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 4:37 PM

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who has staked his legacy on issues of fiscal responsibility, will propose a $4.35 billion budget Tuesday that seems designed to make no one happy: It would raise property tax rates, cut library staffing and drug abuse services, give the public schools less than they had requested and slash spending on the arts, parks and mental health programs.

Leggett's proposed budget - which would close a $300 million budget gap and increase spending slightly over this year's budget - also pointedly rejects a recent series of labor rulings under the county's collective bargaining laws.

Leggett (D) is proposing that public employees do without raises or cost-of-living adjustments and pay more for health care and pensions. He acknowledged that his approach was "inconsistent with the arbitrated awards" covering police, firefighters and other government employees. A pair of arbitrators, for example, had ruled against Leggett's plan to decrease the percentage of health-care coverage the county pays for its workers.

Leggett included the reduction in his budget anyway. He said that - and related personnel moves - would save about $30 million a year in a time of recurring deep budget deficits.

Some county union leaders had anticipated Leggett would take such a stance in his budget and said that he would be breaking county laws intended to make such arbitrators' rulings binding on the county executive. In a letter sent to Leggett last week, John Sparks, head of the county union representing firefighters, threatened to take legal action.

"It simply defies belief that you would consciously and cavalierly ignore your legal obligation to propose full funding for the parties' agreement as part of your March 15 budget," Sparks wrote.

But Leggett said he was acting within his authority. "I have taken the responsibility," Leggett said, adding that he is safeguarding the "public interest."

The Montgomery County Council will make the final decisions on what will be funded in the county budget, and union supporters have begun lobbying against potential changes, noting that county workers have already gone without raises in recent years. Many employees also were furloughed last year - a de facto, although temporary, pay cut.

Leggett said he also had the county's bond rating in mind when shaping his spending blueprint. That follows a scare last year when a rating firm threatened to downgrade the wealthy county's Aaa rating, which would have been both costly and embarrassing. The top-flight rating helps the county borrow more cheaply.

To address Wall Street concerns, Leggett increased county reserves and included $26 million in his budget for retiree health insurance for government workers.

Leggett said it was not his intent to make everyone unhappy. "There's no way for us to make these adjustments without there being some pain," Leggett said. "I'm not happy with it. But it's a reality."

Some of the changes would have only a subtle impact this year, he added. The property tax rate increase of about 4 cents, for example, would raise the average tax bill only very slightly, because many homeowners have seen their assessments go down, Leggett said. "Your basic bill should come out fairly close to what it is now," he said.

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