Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, citing declining county revenues and a potential $10 million budget deficit next year, recommended yesterday that county departments plan on a bare-bones, $771 million budget that will take some significant chunks out of almost every county department.
Gilchrist also cautioned that all agencies should "be prepared to deal with another 1 to 2 percent in cuts if the revenue gap is not closed."
The proposed budget is 4.6 percent higher than this year's budget of $737 million, but still less than a projected 5 percent inflation rate. The cuts are needed, Gilchrist said, since he is holding firm in his pledge not to raise the property tax rate.
"He thinks he can close the gap without it," said Budget Director Jacqueline Rogers. The county will have to lay off about 200 employes, she said, and officials have not ruled out holding down some salary increases if the financial picture does not improve by March.
"No agency will receive enough to do more than preserve the status quo," Gilchrist said in a memo outlining his recommendations.
Gilchrist's preliminary guidelines for all county departments and agencies drew some immediate howls from the hardest-hit agencies, especially the public school system and the park and planning commission. Those two independent agencies, with their own vocal constituencies and allies on the County Council, have traditionally been able to exert influence in increasing their budget allotments.
Gilchrist's proposals also put the executive at odds with some council members who called the proposed cuts unrealistic, setting the stage for an budget battle in the spring.
The frugal attitude in Montgomery is being echoed elsewhere across the region, as financially squeezed jurisdictions prepare for upcoming budget cycles. In Prince George's, where the TRIM amendment keeps property tax revenue at 1979 levels, county executive-elect Parris Glendening has projected a $32 million shortfall next year and is estimating that 600 employes may be laid off.
In Fairfax County, supervisors are proposing limiting budget growth to under 6 percent and holding employe pay raises to a scant 3 percent to avoid a deficit or new taxes in 1983, an election year in that county.
Gilchrist's proposed budget ceilings unveiled to the council yesterday were just guidelines, with the actual 1984 fiscal year budget due to be submitted in March. But Budget Director Rogers said, "I would expect the final budget approved in May to look very close to those guidelines."
Gilchrist's proposal would set a $29 million budget ceiling for the fire departments (a 3.57 percent increase) and a $13 million ceiling for the recreation department (a 3.17 percent increase). He said the county's fire departments should try "to tighten up, cut administrative overhead and redouble their efforts to enhance volunteer participation." He said the recreation department should "pare down" overhead costs and explore new user fees.
Gilchrist proposed a $364 million budget target for the school system, which has a current $354 million operating budget. That amounts to an increase of only 3.09 percent.
"There will be little room for service level enhancements," Gilchrist told the Board of Education, urging school officials not to cut programs for the disadvantaged or cut teaching English as a second language to immigrants.
The school system's budget director, Ken Hill, said the target was unrealistic since the school system is already locked into a $375 million budget for next year simply to cover negotiated cost-of-living salary increases and the increased cost of the employe hospitalization plan.
"This target is the lowest target I've seen," Hill said. "Targets in the past were more realistic. You had to put them on like girdles, but you could usually make them fit. This is more than tight."
The park and planning commission was told to prepare for a $23 million allocation, an increase of less than 2 percent. Gilchrist chided the commission for not making the administrative cuts he suggested for this year.
"He keeps recommending and the council keeps approving new parks," said planning board Chairman Norman Christeller, "and then he doesn't want to pay to mow the grass."
Christeller said the commission has already tightened its belt, cutting its administrative staff by 6 percent, eliminating some part-time summer staff, and taking 600 acres of park land out of the mowing area.
The only county service that can plan on an increase under the Gilchrist proposal is the Ride-On bus service, which will be adding six new routes in Rockville and Bethesda. Gilchrist proposed a 9.52 percent increase in the Ride-On budget.