Combine an election year with pent-up demand for big spending increases in the wake of the Great Recession, and county taxpayers have good reason to worry.
County Executive Isiah Leggett has proposed a double-whammy of unsustainable spending increases: an operating budget for Montgomery County Public Schools $26 million above the state-mandated school funding level required by the maintenance of effort (MOE) law, and pay increases for county employees of 6.75 percent-9.75 percent for the second straight year — increases that add $84 million to the base of the budget driving up overtime and future pension costs as well.
Instead, the council should reject going above MOE and approve sustainable pay increases saving taxpayers $40 million.
Exceeding MOE would lock taxpayers in a fiscal straitjacket year after year, because whatever amount the council approved above the required level becomes the MOE minimum going forward. Moreover, the county cannot control whether the money given above MOE in one year is spent for that purpose in years after. Until the General Assembly reforms the MOE law to allow for one-time increases, it would be irresponsible for the county to go above the required amount. Adhering to the MOE level saves taxpayers $26 million.
County employees deserve a pay raise, but it must be sustainable. County unions are expected to ask for large pay increases. However, the County Executive and County Council are responsible for balancing the interests of county workers with the ability of taxpayers to foot the bill.
Last year, Mr. Leggett agreed to 13.5-19.5 percent pay increases over two years for county employees, and proposed raising the property tax rate for a third straight year to help fund the increases. For the third straight year, Mr. Leggett proposes retaining the county’s extremely high energy tax, despite his promise that the huge 2010 increase would be limited to two years. Balance needs to be restored. Keeping pay raises to a sustainable level saves taxpayers $14 million.
How should the county allocate the $40 million in savings?
The council should allocate two-thirds for tax relief. This will encourage people to stay here, rather than to move to a less expensive jurisdiction. And it will improve the county’s economic competitiveness and help businesses grow jobs that strengthen our tax base.
Specifically, the council should save taxpayers $16 million by lowering the FY15 property tax rate by 2.5 percent rather than staying at the charter limit as Mr. Leggett proposed. And the council should reduce the huge energy tax rate increase of 2010 by 10 percent (as the council did in 2012 and 2013). Reducing the energy tax by $11.4 million will help businesses create jobs, which is critical because Montgomery’s unemployment rate is still far above its pre-Great Recession level.
The council should use the remaining $12.6 million of savings to address critical community needs:
The council should increase funding to maintain roads, sidewalks, crosswalks, trees, trails, streetlights, traffic signals, signs, roofs, HVAC, playgrounds and athletic fields based on findings in the 2014 report of the Infrastructure Maintenance Task Force. The cost is approximately $10.6 million.
The council should provide sufficient funding so all county libraries are open Sunday afternoons from noon to 5 p.m., and to add weeknight hours at libraries with early closing times. The cost is about $1 million.
The council should add eight more school resource (police) officers. Combined with other law enforcement officers, each public high school would have an assigned officer. The cost is approximately $1 million.
Too often, elected officials’ memories are short and their thinking about the future doesn’t extend beyond the next election. Montgomery County and County taxpayers can’t afford that approach.
Councilman Phil Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg is a candidate for County Executive.