RESIDENTS OF Montgomery County can point to some exceptionally good government services and for the most part have supported the taxes to maintain and improve them. But pressures on homeowners have been growing as land values and property taxes have zoomed skyward. Last week the County Council approved a one-cent cut in the property tax rate while raising the tax on energy consumption. For many homeowners, the shift will amount to a tax-burden wash, or several more dollars a year; for others, property tax bills still will soar, producing a substantial increase in county revenue. Taking advantage of this windfall, the council voted to spend about $31 million more than proposed in the $3.3 billion operating budget submitted by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). The budget is 7.5 percent higher for the next fiscal year than for the current one.
This increase is pretty substantial at a time of low inflation, although much of it goes to cover school, health care and public safety costs driven by population growth. School costs alone have been rising by $100 million a year; the percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch programs has tripled since the early 1970s, to nearly one in four today. The six-year capital improvements program, which includes four elementary school projects and was also approved last week, reflects a 26 percent increase over the last plan and is covered by low-interest bonds. All of this reinforces the obvious question: Can't the county cut back some services and defer other spending?
Mr. Duncan and the council members contend that relatively little is left to trim anymore and that the state is dumping responsibilities and leaving local governments to fill in the gaps. Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) says that is why the council approved raising an additional $15 million to replace money for schools that was cut by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) along with other funding for county transportation improvements.
Local governments can criticize Mr. Ehrlich for sticking them with the bills and giving himself credit for refusing to raise any taxes, but most Montgomery officials believe they cannot simply point to the damage and do nothing to repair it. Yet how much can they do, and how much support will they get from homeowners feeling that they pay enough to the county as it is?
Mr. Duncan is concerned about next year, noting that if the state administration's no-tax-increase stand persists, Annapolis will dump still more responsibilities on local governments. His warning ought not be disregarded. This summer, Mr. Silverman plans to initiate a detailed, program-by-program budget analysis in search of expendable services. That search for savings must be intense and constant.