The Montgomery County Council has approved just over $2 million in new spending for popular recreation and traffic safety programs, weeks after it allegedly closed the books on the budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.
The money, approved last week, will build ballfields in northern and western Montgomery communities where many residents complain they are the county's first pick for jails, trash incinerators and other municipal eyesores but never for the good stuff.
The Olney Boys and Girls Club will receive $1 million to help construct a $7.5 million sports complex featuring 11 ballfields and a gymnasium. Most of the money for the project will be raised by the private sector. The Poolesville Athletic Association will receive $50,000 to help improve public school ballfields in the rural west county town.
In addition, the council approved $985,690 to start a red-light enforcement program that has proven popular in other large jurisdictions. The program calls for 10 cameras to rotate among 15 county intersections where accidents and red-light running are common. Drivers caught on film receive tickets, and the county estimates that it will collect $1.3 million a year in fines. The program is scheduled to be running by October.
The council passed over the items in May before approving a $2.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that started earlier this month. The proposals arrived as part of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's supplemental budget late in the negotiations, and council members said they needed more time to weigh them before approving any money.
At the time, Duncan (D) was angry that the proposals were shunted aside, even though council members pledged to revisit them in the coming months. He said adding money after the budget's approval was irresponsible and indefinitely prolonged spending decisions that by law are supposed to be made each year by June 1.
"We should respect that [deadline] because an unlimited budget cycle means we have fewer opportunities to limit spending," said David Weaver, Duncan's spokesman. "We all have to balance our checkbooks and we have to pay bills on time. County government should operate the same way."
But council members said Duncan should have sent the proposals over earlier if he wanted more timely action. Moreover, several members said, the council has the right to add money after the fiscal year begins for emergencies or to take advantage of opportunities that require additional funding. The ballfields and red-light program were approved as "emergency" measures, requiring six of nine council votes for passage.
"This was an opportunity presented to us and we shouldn't be hamstrung by the budget process and lose it," said council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), explaining why the council approved the money for the Olney Boys and Girls Club. "We shouldn't be boxed in by the budget season and not be able to take advantage of public-private partnerships. You will see more and more of this in the recreation area. The private sector doesn't operate on the same schedule we do."
The debate over when--and if--the budget season should end will continue in the coming months.
Last week, Duncan proposed an $11 million package of income tax credits and new spending for child care, health care, transportation and housing subsidies to benefit poor working families.
The $6.5 million in subsidies would require the council to add money to this year's budget when it votes on the issue. Duncan would seek $2.1 million from the council after Jan. 1 to pay for the tax credit component, which would be reimbursed to qualified families as part of their next tax refund.
But spokesman Weaver said the difference between Duncan's request and the council's recent additions is that the county executive is not seeking an "emergency" appropriation, a technical designation but one that many civic activists say is being distorted by overuse. Emergency legislation becomes law immediately with the executive's signature, while regular bills need 91 additional days before taking effect.
"It's a dangerous precedent that at the end of the budget season, when we can't make all the numbers work, we simply postpone the tough decisions," Weaver said. "The emergency supplemental process should be used sparingly, and as its name suggests, it should be used only in emergencies."
CAPTION: DOUGLAS M. DUNCAN (D)