Montgomery County's likely deficit for FY '91 appears to be almost $50 million and may go as high as $150 million to $200 million in FY '92. The deficit problem is shared by all the area's jurisdictions, but solving it in Montgomery may be particularly difficult, because many residents think Montgomery offers the best quality of life in the region -- and must continue to do so.
Now with the budgetary crunch, Montgomery must make some hard choices that will undoubtedly cause a community identity crisis: Montgomery residents will have to learn to accept, in certain things, at least, not being the best.
Take the issue of class size in the county's public schools. For years the county has prided itself in keeping class size significantly below Maryland state guidelines. Currently, the county's school budget provides for 25 students to a classroom, five fewer than the state guideline of 30 students per class. In Montgomery's elementary schools, the average number of students per classroom is closer to 23, one of the lowest in the state, although some studies indicate that once a classroom has more than 15 students, further increases in class size have a minimal effect on the quality of education.
How much does it cost to keep the ratio at 25 students vs. 26 students per classroom? Would you believe $6 million? If Montgomery were willing to approach the state guideline of 30 students per classroom, it could save more than $20 million per year.
Other service areas could sustain cuts, some large, some small, but all would add up. For example, millions could be saved if sidewalks planned for the lower part of the county (where the tax revolt was born) could be deferred. Using less expensive material for repaving streets also could save millions. Doing without computerization of library files would save $400,000, and hundreds of thousands of dollars more could be generated if adults were charged fees for their summer recreation facilities. Millions more could be cut from the capital improvements budget to delay needed improvements in county roads and in regional parks at Wheaton, Cabin John, Fairland and Little Bennett.
Is there a way to avoid the tough choices among service cuts, public employee layoffs or contract renegotiations and tax increases?
One solution almost everyone seems to favor -- especially leaders of the "tax revolt" who sponsored the stringent property tax limitation voters approved in November -- can be summarized by a familiar ditty:
"Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the other guy behind the tree."
What "other guy"?
The favorite choice, by far, is the developers. But apart from the fact that even developers have families and bills to pay and expect to be treated fairly, how much revenue can be expected from a developer's tax at a time of depression in the real estate industry and a near freeze on building in the county, perhaps for years to come? The answer: not much.
And who ends up paying the developer's tax -- isn't it the people who buy new homes, including some of our kids who would like to live here some day?
Another idea in the "other guy" category is a commercial parking space tax. Again, same question: Who is this "other guy" paying the tab instead of us? Businesses likely would pass on parking fees to employees, renters or, ultimately, to consumers.
If county residents want to maintain the quality of life to which they have grown accustomed and continue to strive to be the best in the region, someone is going to have to pay for it. And it's not likely to be the "other guy." It's more likely to be a little bit from everyone -- and maybe more than a little bit from some.
-- Lanny J. Davis is associate publisher of the Silver Spring Record and Montgomery County Business Record.