Saying “great days and great times are ahead for us in Montgomery County,” County Executive Isiah Leggett unveiled a $4.97 billion proposed operating budget Monday that provides more money for schools, police and programs for youth and seniors.
The budget features what Leggett on Friday called a “modest” growth of 3.4 percent from the fiscal 2014 budget and will slightly lower property taxes from $1.01 per $100 of assessed value to $0.996 per $100 of assessed value. The median home price in Montgomery is $375,000.
County Council President Craig L. Rice praised the budget Monday as a “very measured approach” that recognizes where the county finds itself financially.
The council will get into the details of proposal in the coming weeks, Rice said. The council will vote on a final budget in late May.
He said he suspects the council might propose some increases in funding for the county’s recreation and parks departments.
Leggett’s budget provides more than $1.5 billion in county money for Montgomery County Public Schools, $26 million more than maintenance of effort, the minimum amount required by the state. Including state and federal funding, the county’s public schools will receive $2.16 billion in the recommended operating budget.
Along with the increase above maintenance of effort, Leggett’s budget also includes at least $11 million from Montgomery County Public Schools’ fund balance.
Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he appreciates Leggett going above the maintenance of effort threshold, but the proposal still leaves the school system about $15 million short of the $2.32 billion operating budget the Board of Education passed in February.
Starr said he hopes the council will agree to fund the balance.
If not, “we’ll have to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Rice said that while he expects that while Starr and the school board absolutely should advocate for education, the council has to look at all the county’s agencies when making up the budget.
Providing more money for the schools would be difficult when other departments wish they’d been fully funded, he said.
The Montgomery County Police Department would receive $13 million more under Leggett’s proposal — including 23 new officer positions and two forensic science positions — and the county’s libraries more than $37 million, a 6.7 percent increase from fiscal 2014.
The budget proposal sets aside $379.9 million in reserve funds and $105 million to pay for obligations related to retiree health benefits.
Leggett said Monday having a healthy reserve fund was especially important because of a pending court case that concerns whether counties must be required to provide a credit for county income taxes on out-of-state taxes paid to other states on certain types of corporate income.
The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that failure to provide a credit is unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court could take up the case.
Leggett said if the court doesn’t rule in its favor, the county could be liable for as much as $150 million in retroactive penalties, payments and other costs, as well as face about $25 million a year in lost revenue going forward.
Monday’s event also served as a skirmish in the ongoing battle for the Democratic primary for county executive between Leggett, former county executive Douglas M. Duncan and Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg.
At several points during his presentation, Leggett compared elements of the budget during his nearly eight years in office to Duncan’s tenure from 1994 until 2006, although he never mentioned Duncan by name.
Andrews criticized Leggett’s decision for going above maintenance of effort is school funding, saying the move would require the county to pay that much more in coming years and place a burden on county officials and taxpayers.
He also criticized the amount provided for employee raises, saying he believed the raises should come in a smaller amount.
Andrews said the county should use the money that would be saved by those measures to reduce the county’s energy tax and further reduce the property tax rate by 1 percent, increase money for repairs of potholes and other infrastructure and expand library hours.
Leggett often said publicly as the budget was being developed that he wouldn’t move too quickly to restore funding to county programs as Montgomery emerged from the economic downturn.
He said he tried to plan for a budget that would at least come close to matching existing funding for programs, with increases in certain areas.
Although some areas will see larger increases than others, no parts of the budget experienced significant cuts, he said.
While the budget may not satisfy everyone’s desires to see funding returned to programs, Leggett said Monday he believes the county was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after several lean budget years.
“That light is bright, although it’s not as bright as people might hope it to be,” he said.