The Montgomery County Council failed yesterday to override a veto by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) of a proposed tax increase on movie tickets, golf fees and other forms of entertainment.
The original proposal passed the council by a veto-proof 7 to 2 majority last month, but three council members -- President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) -- voted against the tax increase yesterday, saying the revenue was unnecessary.
"We don't need the money," Silverman said. "What we were essentially voting on was whether we wanted to raise the amusement tax to put into the reserves for a rainy day."
The tax increase -- which would have generated $1.25 million by increasing the admissions and amusement tax from 7 percent to 10 percent -- was intended to fund the arts and humanities.
But Duncan and some council members said the revenues would instead go into reserves because the council-approved budget is balanced and $1.4 million above the mandated reserve level.
Some council members who voted to override the veto said the appearance of a balanced budget was an illusion, noting potential burdens on the county government because of state cutbacks.
"Our spending plan for this year, let alone future years, is hardly in balance," said Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), who proposed the override of Duncan's veto.
Silverman said it was unwise to act based on hypothetical expenses but said the council would probably take up the matter again.
"We will probably raise the amusement and entertainment tax next year," he said.
Fighting Over Fees
The County Council is attempting to wrestle control of parking fees and bus fares from Duncan, who sets the fees unilaterally, but the county attorney's office says the move is illegal.
Although the council recommends transportation rates in the budget, the county executive is free to disregard its suggestion. Council members complain that his sole control over the fees wreaks havoc on the budget process.
"The county executive has not implemented the fees that were assumed in the budget," said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), chairman of the transportation committee. "We want to be able to do our part in assuming responsibility for the process."
The proposal would transform the executive's unilateral power to set the fees into the council's unilateral power to set them.
A memo from the county attorney's office, however, says the bill "violates the separation of powers doctrine embedded in the County Charter." But it does conclude that the council can set the fees by legislation -- which would mean the county executive retains veto power over the rates.
The transportation committee will take up the bill today at 2 p.m., and council members say a compromise is likely where both the executive and council are involved in setting transportation fees through legislation.
"We would just like to be on equal footing," Silverman said.
The county executive's office says any change in the fee-setting process is unnecessary. "This is a solution in search of a problem," said Duncan spokesman David Weaver. "We work very well with the council when it comes to these rates and fees. We haven't identified the problem that they're trying to fix."
Duncan said he is confident an agreement can be reached and that the council will not try to take sole control of setting the transportation fees.
"I think they need to look at the charter," he said.
Fuzzy Math on Overtime
Montgomery's police department spent more than 215 percent of the money allotted for overtime in just the first three quarters of fiscal year 2004, according to county figures.
But while that number looks shocking, it is not out of line with what the police have spent over the past three years.
The issue, county officials say, is not that the police are spending an inordinate amount on overtime, but that the county's budget has consistently low-balled its allotments for police overtime in recent years. So, for example, when the police spent nearly $8.5 million on overtime in fiscal year 2003, the department received only $3 million for the next year -- a figure that nobody realistically believed the police department could stay within.
According to figures presented last week to the County Council's public safety committee, the police department had spent $6.7 million on overtime in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2004, which began July 1, 2003. The total overtime budget was $3.1 million.
The low figure allowed the county some slack in giving money to other areas, and when the police department spent more than it was allotted, emergency money was always approved.
"The checks don't bounce," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the public safety committee. "The money will be there."
Andrews said he believes the amount the police department spends on overtime is generally acceptable. Intentionally underestimating overtime money is "not the right way to do it," he said.
"We want a realistic number from the beginning. We don't want to see an intentional low-balling in order to get other things in the budget."
In the county's 2005 budget, $7 million has been allotted for police overtime -- less than has been spent in recent years, but more than double what was allotted this year.
Weast's New Deputy
The Montgomery County school board appointed school system chief of staff Frieda K. Lacey as the new deputy superintendent Monday -- Superintendent Jerry D. Weast's fourth deputy in five years.
Lacey replaces Gregory Thornton, who after a year as deputy superintendent is moving back to Philadelphia to become chief academic officer for the city's public school system. James Williams and Steven G. Seleznow were Weast's previous deputies.
Lacey served as Montgomery County schools' director of equity assurance and compliance in the late 1990s and briefly took leave to advise the District of Columbia superintendent on special education. She came back as Weast's executive assistant, then chief of staff, overseeing special education, alternative education, shared accountability and student services.
Master Plan Hearing
The first public hearing on a draft of Montgomery's new fire and rescue master plan -- the document that maps out emergency services in the county until 2015 -- has been set for 7 p.m. July 14. The current master plan expires in December.
Hosted by the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Commission in the lobby auditorium of the Executive Office Building, 101 Monroe St. in Rockville, the meeting is open to public testimony. Those wishing to testify must contact Annette Cheng at 240-777-2422 no later than July 9. Testimony will be limited to three minutes for individuals and five minutes for individuals representing groups.
The draft of the master plan can be viewed at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/firerescue/frc/masterplan0515.
Staff writer Linda Perlstein contributed to this report.