The Montgomery County Council gave final approval Thursday to a $5.3 billion budget that includes the biggest property-tax hike in seven years, trims pay raises the county had promised to unionized workers and pours record funding into the school system.
Critics of the spending plan warned of a potential political backlash that could boost support in liberal Montgomery for Gov. Larry Hogan (R) or for putting term limits for county officials on the November ballot.
The budget, which takes effect July 1, includes a nearly 9 percent property-tax increase that will add $326 to the average residential tax bill. It is also supported by a rise in recordation taxes that will add $455, for example, to the cost of buying or selling a $500,000 home.
Council members say that in return for the added tax burden, the county’s 156,000-student school system will receive an infusion of money to help it meet myriad challenges, including overcrowded buildings and a widening gap separating the academic achievements of white and Asian students from Hispanic and black ones.
In exchange for the council’s record $2.4 billion appropriation, $90 million over the state-mandated minimum, the Board of Education agreed to trim already-negotiated raises for teachers and other school personnel from 8 percent to 4.5 percent. Discussions between school officials and labor leaders are continuing, but the board told council members that it is prepared to impose the cuts with or without union agreement, which is allowed by state law.
While the council dubbed its 2017 budget an “education first” initiative, it also increased spending in areas not covered by the original proposal from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). The fire service received $3.7 million to restore staff reductions at stations in Hyattstown and Hillandale and to increase the size of recruit classes to offset attrition. The Public Election Fund, which will support a new campaign-finance system that will match small individual donations starting in 2018, received $4.5 million. The council also set aside $149,000 for a new assistant state’s attorney and legal assistant who will focus on prosecuting crimes against vulnerable adults — those who lack the physical or mental capacity to meet their own daily needs.
Voting on the operating and capital budgets was largely a formality, since most decisions were made at earlier meetings. Thursday’s session lasted a brisk 35 minutes.
“We made all our speeches last week,” said Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).
Groups who ended up on the short end of the council’s decisions were not pleased. This includes the county’s real estate industry, which lobbied aggressively against the hike in recordation taxes. Unions representing police and nonuniformed county workers expressed anger over the elimination of 3.5 percent in longevity pay increases intended to make up for hikes deferred during the recession.
While unions still received wage increases averaging 4.5 percent, labor leaders pointed with indignation to the series of pay hikes for council members approved in 2013, which by 2017 will raise members’ pay from $106,394 to $136,258.
Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994, which represents about 5,000 county workers, said the union will probably show its displeasure by backing a petition drive by Republican activist Robin Ficker to place a term-limits proposition on Montgomery’s November ballot.
If passed, the measure would limit the county executive and council members to three consecutive terms. It means at least four of the nine lawmakers — Floreen, Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), Marc Elrich (D-At-Large) and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) — would be barred from seeking reelection.
They could, however, run for county executive — and some are considering the idea. Leggett, who is expected to retire in any event, is serving his third term.
“I’m tired of these clowns,” Renne said Thursday, citing Elrich, who voted against cutting the pay raises, as an exception. Renne said that he would poll his members first but that he would “be very surprised if there isn’t a deep desire to support the term limitations.”
Republicans said the budget’s property-tax hikes could stir new enthusiasm for Hogan, who has emphasized cutting taxes and is planning to run for a second term in 2018. He received just 37.9 percent of the vote in Montgomery County in 2014.
“This is the result of one-party rule,” said Montgomery GOP Chairman Michael Higgs, referring to the fact that Leggett and all nine council members are Democrats. “People are going to be demanding change in a way we haven’t seen in Montgomery County in a generation.”