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Montgomery, Prince George’s budget proposals emphasize equity amid recovery

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has unveiled a $5.96 billion spending plan, expressing optimism about the county’s post-pandemic recovery. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Nearly a year after the killing of George Floyd sparked a nationwide reckoning over race, officials in Maryland’s two largest jurisdictions have proposed budgets that emphasize racial equity and efforts to build back from the financial losses spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) on Monday unveiled a $5.96 billion spending plan that expresses measured optimism about the county’s post-pandemic recovery and keeps the property tax rate steady. With the help of federal aid, the county plans to restore its depleted general reserves while increasing financial assistance for low-
income families, and boosting funding for affordable housing and climate initiatives.

Elrich is also pushing to remove armed police from public schools as part of an effort to reform the police department, the latest turn in a heated debate over the county’s school resource officer program.

About half of Elrich’s proposed budget — $2.78 billion — will go to the public school system, exceeding a state requirement for maintenance of effort and fully meeting the county Board of Education’s funding request.

“This is not a retreat budget, not a same-services budget. This is a recovery budget,” Elrich said in a news conference Monday. “We’re not treading water here.”

The Montgomery County Council will review and vote on the budget in the coming weeks.

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The council’s president, Tom Hucker (D-District 5), said he thinks Elrich’s plan “reflects Montgomery’s values.” He specifically praised the $20 million set aside for the Working Families Income Supplement program, which matches a state tax credit for low-income residents.

Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), a frequent Elrich critic, said that although he will need to analyze the budget in detail, he hasn’t yet identified major areas of contention. “There are pretty significant increases here for priority areas that council shares with the county executive,” he said.

In neighboring Prince George’s County, a $4.5 billion spending plan unveiled last week by County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) includes money for new health initiatives and efforts to ensure equity and accountability in the police department.

Revenue fell by more than $100 million from pre-pandemic projections, Alsobrooks told lawmakers, but did not decline as much as some had projected. She said her spending plan — which will be considered by the Prince George’s County Council — reflects “discipline and optimism.”

Her budget for fiscal 2022 represents a 1.3 percent increase over the current year and includes $49 million from the county’s reserves, which officials said the county plans to rebuild. The property tax rate would remain $1.00 per $100 of assessed value.

Despite slight trims in funding to certain agencies, Alsobrooks said her administration is determined to close “equity gaps” in policing, education and health in the majority-Black county, which has had the most coronavirus cases in the state.

Her spending plan directs $20 million to a behavioral health center and $15 million to a ­public-private partnership that will be used to build six new public schools. Alsobrooks proposed increasing the health department’s budget by 5 percent to fund 10 new positions, including three registered nurses and two disease control specialists.

Alsobrooks has also earmarked money to act on some of the recommendations made by a police reform group, including hiring a new director for race and gender equity, and establishing stipends for residents who participate in the citizen oversight complaint panel for police discipline investigations.

In Montgomery, Elrich has asked for two new positions for the county’s racial equity office, a new mobile health clinic, and the creation of a $1.7 million multilingual communications unit, staffed with 15 employees.

Elrich is also proposing a reorganization of the Montgomery County police that would eliminate 29 positions, of which 25 are sworn officers. Most of those positions are vacant, and officers occupying any roles slated to be cut would be redeployed, not laid off. The proposed budget for the department — $283 million — is lower than what was proposed in fiscal 2021 and 2020, but higher than what was approved last year.

Police officers assigned to the county’s high schools and some middle schools would be removed but would remain in the surrounding communities to provide assistance when needed.

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Hucker, who has backed efforts to reduce the police presence at schools, said the plan strikes a “fair compromise” between the experiences of students of color, who advocates say are disproportionately targeted by police in schools, and the need for school safety. But Riemer, who is co-sponsoring a bill to eliminate the school officer program entirely, said Elrich’s plan doesn’t go far enough.

“It continues the intensive use of police officers in student discipline,” he said. “It may move them off campus  . . . but it keeps the idea that we’re going to have police officers patrol students where they hang out, where they are.”

Elrich said the redeployed officers would only enter campuses when absolutely necessary, adding: “They’re not going to be parked on the parking lot, and they won’t be on the grounds.”

Other highlights of the Montgomery spending plan include a record $89 million for affordable housing, $10 million more than the amount approved last year. The county plans to launch a new Homeless Court program to divert homeless individuals away from the criminal justice system, and establish a $250,000 grant to build a biotech research and innovation center in White Flint. The budget also sets aside funding to transform the Brookville bus depot in Silver Spring into a solar-powered charging station for the county’s fleet of electric buses.

Like many other counties and cities, Montgomery has faced significant revenue shortfalls because of pandemic shutdowns and was forced to draw on its general reserves. Last year, the County Council rejected an initial proposal from Elrich to increase property taxes, and eventually passed a “continuity of operations” budget that did not include major cuts or increases in spending.

This year’s budget process is set to be less onerous, officials say, in large part because of increased federal support. Elrich’s plan recommends keeping the property tax rate at $0.9785 per $100 of assessed value.

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress last week, Montgomery will receive $204 million, and its municipalities will receive a total of about $100 million. This impending infusion has “greatly improved” the county’s revenue forecasts, Elrich said in a memo, allowing it to embark on a three-year plan to restore its savings to pre-pandemic levels.

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