A year after approving an 8.7 percent property-tax increase that helped fuel a successful campaign for term limits, the Montgomery County Council passed a $5.4 billion budget Thursday that won’t impose new hardship on taxpayers’ wallets.
The average annual residential tax bill will increase by less than $2 a month in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Overall, county government spending will increase by 2.7 percent, compared with 5.1 percent this year.
Much of last year’s tax hike was used for what council members called an “education-first” budget that reduced class size and tried to close the achievement gap.
The 160,000-student school system continues to be the budget’s biggest line item by far, at $2.5 billion. That is an increase of $64.6 million, or 2.6 percent, over 2017, fully funding the Board of Education’s request and paying for the fast-growing district to hire more than 100 full-time school employees, mostly teachers.
The council approved 2 percent cost-of-living increases for unionized fire, police and general county employees. Eligible workers will receive additional 3.5 percent longevity increases. The county’s nonprofit service providers will get a 2 percent bump.
“I believe the budget we have just approved harmonizes our fiscal realities with our values while building on the basic services that our residents and taxpayers see and rely on every day,” said council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda).
The new budget, which the council will formally adopt May 25, produced little of the rancor and angst that marked last year’s deliberations. Many voters have cited the property-tax increase approved last year as the reason they supported the term-limit ballot proposition, which passed by an overwhelming margin. It limits council members and the county executive to three consecutive four-year terms and will unseat four of the nine incumbent council members in 2018.
Total spending in the final budget was almost identical to the amount proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) in March. But council members shifted and skimmed $19.6 million from various corners of Leggett’s budget to fund their own projects.
Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) pushed successfully for $2.2 million to expand Head Start to full days at 10 county schools, benefiting about 200 low-income 4-year-olds. He said it would take $35 million to cover all the children who should have full days in Head Start, adding that it was important to make a start.
Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) inserted about $300,000 to the $11.2 million Montgomery Cares program, which provides basic medical services for the uninsured. The extra funds will pay for an additional 1,000 patient visits to doctors.
Leventhal, who is running to succeed Leggett as county executive in 2018, said demand for services started to decline after passage of the Affordable Care Act. But with national health-care policy in flux, he said, an increase was in order.
“If Republicans in Congress and President Trump are successful, more and more people will lose coverage,” Leventhal said.