A May 21 Metro article misstated how much larger Montgomery County's fiscal 2005 operating budget is than the current budget. Spending would increase 7.5 percent, not nearly 10 percent. (Published 05/22/04).
Montgomery County libraries again will be open longer hours with more employees. Residents without medical insurance will have a low-cost "community pharmacy" to buy prescriptions. Construction will begin on a skateboard park in Olney.
And, according to the all-but-official $3.3 billion budget approved yesterday by the County Council, 21 new natural gas buses soon will be riding the roads to help keep the air cleaner and traffic clearer.
Council members voted 8 to 1 for Montgomery's biggest-ever operating budget, a nearly 10 percent increase over its spending blueprint for fiscal year 2004. They also passed unanimously a $2.2 billion capital improvements program for the coming six years, representing a 26 percent boost over the last plan. It will advance, among many items, four elementary school building projects that were in danger of delay.
The action came a day after the council provisionally decided to cut the property tax rate by 1 cent while increasing energy and amusement taxes. The move will raise almost $41 million and cost many taxpayers a few more dollars annually.
Most members again defended their approach.
"Three dollars a month -- that's what the energy tax is going to be," said Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), citing numerous programs to be funded that County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) had cut or deferred in his proposed budget.
The sole vote against the budget, council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), warned that the rate of spending could not be sustained. "The budget cannot be funded beyond this year. . . . This isn't the heyday of the mid-'90s, and it's not likely to be," she said. Moreover, many residents are worried about the higher energy tax, she told colleagues. Not everyone can "put on an extra sweater or open a window" to keep utility bills down winter and summer, she said.
Duncan, who came in for a few digs during the morning's congratulatory comments, later voiced the same caution in a statement.
The energy tax, he said, "is of particular concern given the fact that this same tax was raised last year and that price caps on electricity are being lifted in July. The impact on the average taxpayer of these actions, when taken together, could be substantial."
The list of new, expanded or rescued initiatives that will be funded in the fiscal year beginning July 1 touches all aspects of county services, starting with the half-million dollars returned to the library budget. Regional libraries in Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Wheaton will regain the four hours a week they each lost in February.
New spending runs from full-day kindergarten in 17 additional schools and $150,000 in increased tree maintenance, to more staff members at two Kensington fire stations and support to keep the county's homeless shelter open year-round.
"So never again will we literally have to throw people out in the street as we did at the end of this winter," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). "Sick people, old people, poor people, homeless people, abused and neglected children -- this budget treats those people very, very well."
The budget, which faces formal ratification next week, also includes $52,000 for defibrillators at all county recreation facilities. It will pay for an 800-space parking garage in Wheaton's Westfield Shoppingtown mall and, at a cost of $409,000, for Ride-On bus hours to start earlier and end later on some routes.
With working-class families virtually priced out of the county's housing market, the Housing Initiative Fund will receive $17.4 million to promote affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization. A $1 million revolving loan program will assist eligible home buyers with closing costs.
In the capital budget, transportation gets nearly 15 percent more money, and public schools 43 percent more in recognition of the huge hit both took when anticipated state funding fell through. At worst, Montgomery school officials expected to receive $19 million from the state for their construction projections in this year's legislative session. Instead, they received less than half of that.
"This is a giant step forward," Superintendent Jerry D. Weast exulted as he left the council meeting. "And what makes it so courageous is that when the state failed, the county came forward."
Though a tax-limitation initiative will appear on the ballot this November, council members discounted the possibility that the tax increases they passed will improve its chance of success.
"I think there's a strong understanding of priorities in Montgomery County, in that you get what you pay for," Silverman said.