Over the course of the next few weeks, the Montgomery County Council faces a monumental challenge -- how to satisfy the needs of our more than 900,000 citizens while fending off those trying to make it impossible to meet those needs.

On one side of this problem is a population accustomed to the high level of services the county provides. Among other benefits, our citizens enjoy one of the finest public school systems in the nation; a well-educated, well-trained police force; quick and sure response to emergencies; a first-class library system; an extensive road and transit network; and park and recreation facilities that provide enjoyment and respite for all.

On the other side are the small group of citizens led by perennial candidate Robin Ficker, who seek to limit by referendum the council's ability to raise the revenue to meet the needs of all of its citizens. Ficker and his followers believe the same sort of tax limitations that have crippled Prince George's County are right for Montgomery County.

They couldn't be more wrong.

However, I understand the angst that often gives rise to these draconian and unwise measures. The popular question is: Why can't government, like a family on a tight budget, make do with the money it has? Well, if your family was growing rapidly and you had family members with special needs, you would probably be looking for the least painful way to fund these growing needs, just as the county has done.

But the impact of Ficker's challenge is also clear for the council. If his measure were to pass, the county would lose $48 million in revenue next year and more than $1.5 billion over the next six years. To ensure that we do not provide Ficker with free fodder, our approach to the budget must be prudent and demonstrate to county residents that we are responsible and careful stewards of public funds. We must be able to prove that we have culled unnecessary spending from all parts of the proposed $3.3 billion county operating budget if we are to be effective in opposing the latest Ficker referendum.

At the same time, the council has an equally important opportunity to ensure that the needs of all of its citizens are met in the best possible way. We must have adequate police officers, firefighters and teachers. Our public facilities must be clean and safe. Our children must be well educated. Our streets and other infrastructure must be properly maintained. A balance must be struck between the services we love and the taxes we hate. In our public hearings last month, the council heard from many that we need to do more, not less. This year, and next year too, striking that balance will be no mean feat.

Howard A. Denis