It's the $63,000 question of this year's budget cycle.

What's more important: mailing notices to Montgomery residents telling them how much they paid in property taxes? Or mailing an annual report describing what their county government has accomplished over the past year?

Each mailing costs about the same: $63,000.

In a tight budget year something inevitably has to go.

On Friday, council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) proposed dropping the annual report in favor of mailing tax notices to 163,000 Montgomery households. The council unanimously backed the suggestion and is set to formally approve it this month as part of a county operating budget expected to be about $3.3 billion.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) wants to cut the property-tax mailing. His staff members said that the information is available online and that the county can save money by not providing redundant services.

"Full disclosure is my objective here," Floreen said. "Our fundamental obligation is to make it easy for residents to know what they are paying in taxes."

Duncan spokesman David Weaver said the tax information, available at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/apps/tax/index.asp, is easy to access, and mailing property tax notices in the past has caused confusion among taxpayers.

"We shouldn't spend money to confuse people," Weaver said. "We should spend money to clarify or to inform them."

The tax notices are not bills. Rather, they are statements of how much money a homeowner's mortgage company has already paid in taxes.

But many homeowners have mistaken the documents for tax bills, said county finance director Timothy L. Firestine.

"We've had a lot of confusion over the years," he said.

Homeowners who have paid off their mortgage pay taxes directly and receive actual tax bills in the mail; Duncan's proposed cut would not affect those bills.

New Fire Station

Crews broke ground last week on what will be the first fire station built in Montgomery County since 1978.

Fire Station No. 1 replaces a 100-year-old building on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. The building has been a fire station since 1919 and was last renovated in 1983.

The $6.7 million, 35,000-square-foot station is expected to be finished in summer 2005. On the second floor will be a 6,000-square-foot police substation that will be staffed by a lieutenant, 42 police officers and eight traffic officers, county officials said.

The construction is the start of a multi-year effort to build several fire stations in the county. Some stations have been renovated significantly in recent years, but no station has been built since 1978, fire officials said.

A station is slated to be built in Germantown starting in 2006, another in the Rockville area in 2007 and a third in Germantown in 2008, county officials said. Construction on a station in Clarksburg is slated to begin in 2010.

State Delegation Elects Leaders

Last week, Montgomery's delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates reelected Gaithersburg Democrat Del. Charles E. Barkley as chairman through the 2005 session.

Del. Carol S. Petzold, a Democrat from Rockville, was chosen as the 31-member delegation's vice chairman, a position she has held for 10 years.

Barkley, who has been chairman for two years, was first elected delegate in 1998. Petzold was first elected to the House in 1986.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) favors preserving tax notices.