Following are some excerpts of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's state of the county address, which was delivered last week.
Montgomery County is enjoying some very good times.
Our county is creating jobs--more jobs than any other jurisdiction in the state.
Our unemployment rate is down to 1.8 percent, the lowest in Maryland.
Our crime rate has dropped 20 percent over the past five years.
County services have been improved across-the-board, with better school facilities and smaller class sizes, longer library hours, new cultural and recreational programs, better trash collection and snow removal, and a range of new services to help residents in need.
And, all of this has been accomplished while lowering county taxes.
In fact, over the past five years, we have reduced or eliminated seven different county taxes: the property tax, piggyback tax, energy tax, bottle tax, construction excise tax, telephone tax and cellular telephone tax.
These are remarkable achievements. We should all be proud. But let us also recognize that many of our current successes are built upon the foresight of our county's past leaders. In the spirit of our predecessors, I suggest that the time has come to practice their brand of foresight by investing in our future.
A Focus on Schools
First, we need to continue investing in our children and in our schools. We must take steps to increase accountability and achievement across the system, and at the same time target resources on areas of need.
The most important thing we can do for our students is to provide them with the best possible teachers. But in the past, the school system has allocated less than 1 percent of its budget for staff development. I believe this must change.
We need additional teacher trainers, or teacher developers, on site in every school to help all instructors teach the curriculum using the best and most effective strategies available. This ensures accountability and will help raise the bar for all kids and will close the gap for low-performing students.
We need to make sure instructional assistants and other school support staff get the training they need as well, because they are on the front line of ensuring a quality education for our children. We also need additional teachers who will focus on making sure our kids are learning to read and reading to learn. That's why I support reading specialists in every school to raise the bar on reading for everyone.
But, in order for children to reach their full potential they must be healthy and come to school ready to learn. That is why I am also calling for an expansion of the Linkages to Learning program over the next six years so that we will have school-based health and mental health service in 32 elementary and middle schools.
As we work together to improve the quality of our schools, we have to do all we can to require a safe learning environment.
Police Chief [Charles A.] Moose will be dedicating one officer to every public high school cluster in the county. They will be in the schools helping with prevention and intervention programs and working directly with school staff, students and parents on safety and security.
I am also embarking on a comprehensive effort to determine the effectiveness of our current juvenile justice system, which is run by the State of Maryland. I have asked a task force to report back to me by the end of January on actions that we can take to implement both short-term and long-term improvements in juvenile justice services in Montgomery County. I am also recommending the establishment of a comprehensive Juvenile Assessment Center in Rockville to improve services for the children and families who go through the juvenile justice and child welfare system in our county.
Even after doing all of this, challenges still remain. Today, our public schools have 131,000 students, more than we ever had during the peak of the baby boom. And enrollment is projected to rise for years to come.
We have responded by allocating more and more money to the schools--over $1.1 billion in this year's budget. I wish we had unlimited county funds to spend on our schools, but we don't. So, I have tried to find ways to target resources and leverage more money from Annapolis.
Five years ago, our team of officials worked in the state legislature to increase our county's allocation of school construction funds. That effort has been very successful, bringing a 150 percent increase in state funding. In large part, thanks to the hard work of our state legislative delegation, last year we were able to open three excellent new high schools.
Two years ago, our county led the movement to lower class sizes. In 1998, Montgomery County was the first jurisdiction in the state to implement a class-size reduction plan, spending $10 million and targeting both elementary school reading classes and middle school math classes. In 1999, our program served as a model for the state.
Of course, our educational priorities go beyond public grade schools. Ironically, although our residents are among the most highly educated in the nation, it has not been possible to complete a four-year public college education within our borders. That's why I have been working to make the University of Maryland Education Center at Shady Grove available for third- and fourth-year daytime classes.
To make this work and accommodate projected student growth, we will need a third education building at Shady Grove, and we'll have to proceed with expansion of Montgomery College's Takoma Park Campus. Each of these projects will require significant investment, and I will push hard for these projects in the upcoming session of the Maryland General Assembly.
Second, we need to invest in transportation.
It seems I can't go anywhere these days--sometimes literally--without hearing about or experiencing our traffic problems. As a whole, the Washington metropolitan region has the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation. Traffic congestion is an increasing threat to the environment, to our economy and to our overall quality of life.
It is not a question of whether to build more roads or use more mass transit--we have no choice but to do both. That is why I am proposing the Traffic Relief Investment Program--or TRIP. Under TRIP, we would invest an additional $365 million over the next six years to pay for road improvements and increased mass transit. That's a 50 percent increase in annual transportation funding over the next six years.
In addition to the TRIP initiative, I will continue to advocate for an east-west parkway to provide the crucial connection between the I-270 corridor to Frederick and the I-95 corridor to Baltimore.
I am convinced--more than ever--that a roadway link between these two interstates is absolutely essential to the economic future of our county and the entire State of Maryland. But just as important, I will continue to fight for a significant expansion of our Metro system with the creation of the Purple line, a subway beltway linking suburban employment centers around the region.
Third, we need to invest in the county's ecosystems and environment. Clearly, to preserve our quality of life we've got to ensure that the air is pure, the water is clean and the land is safe from hazards.
I'm pleased to announce a new initiative--called the Countywide Forest Conservation Strategy--to address our accelerating threat of forest fragmentation and loss. Forests clean the air, filter ground water, reduce surface runoff, provide wildlife habitat and ultimately protect watersheds and reservoirs.
We will form a public-private Forest Conservation Task Force to target priority areas for consolidation and forest protection consistent with our county's goals for agricultural preservation.
Fourth, we need to invest in our county's neighborhoods and business centers.
I was raised in the Twinbrook neighborhood of Rockville. I still live nearby, just up the road, and my parents continue to live in the same house where I grew up. And it was a great place to grow up. The schools, the parks, the people made that place special to me. It's still special.
I want everyone to feel that way about their own corner of the county.
That's why we've invested in newer communities, like Germantown, with libraries, ball fields and swimming pools. And that's why we've invested in older communities, like Gaithersburg, Bethesda and Rockville, with better roads, sidewalks and storm drains.
As you know, we targeted downtown Silver Spring for special attention--and all our hard work is just about to bear fruit.
We need to duplicate the Silver Spring strategy by investing in the Wheaton urban center and other areas. We will create a Wheaton action team to develop and implement a revitalization plan. I will support this effort by establishing a regional redevelopment office in Wheaton, staffed by representatives of all the necessary agencies needed to cut through red tape and deliver visible results quickly.
Wheaton is Montgomery County's Adams-Morgan. Ethnic and cultural diversity is Wheaton's strength, and it's time that we made the additional investments needed to realize this community's full potential.
And fifth, we need to invest in the people of Montgomery County.
We need to implement a stare-of-the-art radio and data system so that our public safety personnel can communicate not only with each other, but with their colleagues around the region. Data terminals--or laptop computers--in police and fire vehicles will cut down on paper work, increase efficiency and get them back out on the street faster to protect the public's safety.
We will also continue to improve our handling of citizen complaints through our internal affairs operation. Discrimination is not--and will not--be tolerated. And if a member of our community feels that they have been treated unfairly, we want the process of filing a complaint to be a simple, straightforward one that is completed in a timely manner.
Of course, we need to do more than just keep our citizens safe from harm, we need to help our less fortunate citizens in times of need. And we've done that.
I'm glad to report that our county is one of the most successful in the nation in helping welfare recipients become wage earners. Since 1995, our welfare caseload has been reduced by 79 percent. Our job retention rate is about 85 percent. And the average hourly rate being paid is over $7.50.
But despite our success, we need to do more to invest in our future. No Montgomery County resident who works full time and supports a family should be poor. We need to empower our citizens who previously relied on welfare. That's why I proposed and the County Council enacted the very first local government Earned Income Tax Credit in the nation.
We're matching that state dollar-for-dollar and helping to empower thousands of families to climb out of poverty. Close to 12,000 Montgomery County households can expect a local tax refund check in the mail by February of 2000. In 2001, that number will rise to almost 14,000.
Now we need to push the State of Maryland to expand its Earned Income Tax Credit from 15 to 50 percent. I'm going to fight for this change in Annapolis, because if enacted, it will help lift thousands and thousands of Maryland families who work hard and play by the rules.
Another critical piece to righting poverty is access to health care. We will also be asking the state to expand its highly successful Children's Health Insurance Program--which provides health care to the children of working poor families--so that the parents of these kids can have access to health care as well.