Montgomery budget process moves into home stretch -- Gazette.Net







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From public officials to schools advocates, to groups for seniors and people with mental illness or physical disabilities — many of the real people behind Montgomery County’s nearly $5 billion proposed operating budget appeared before the County Council to advocate for their respective causes last week.

The council held a total of five hearings, some twice in one day, on April 8, 9 and 10 to discuss the $4.97 billion operating budget that has been proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), giving county residents a chance to speak up for or against the county providing funding for various programs and initiatives.

More than 100 people testified at the various hearings, according to county records.

Suzan Jenkins, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, asked the council to support the Executive’s $4.2 million budget for the group, saying its work helps make the county’s communities more vibrant.

More than 4.2 million residents and visitors attend cultural programs, and their group works with more than 865,000 students in the arts and humanities each year, Jenkins said, according to written testimony she submitted.

The organization’s grants and workshops to provide technical assistance are available to more than 1,500 artists and scholars, 58 performing arts venues, 60 galleries, 22 theaters, 50 historical venues, 150 arts and humanities groups of all sizes, 27 book stores, 33 dance studios, 28 music stores, 14 recording studios, nine art supply stores and 32 music schools, Jenkins said.

Thom Harr, CEO of Family Services, a nonprofit agency that provides a variety of social services to county residents, asked the council to restore or continue to provide funding for its programs.

In 2013, Family Services worked with 25,000 people and brought more than $15 million in federal, state and private money into the county, Harr said, according to his written testimony.

Among the items Harr asked the council to provide funding for was a center in Gaithersburg that helps coordinate services including early-childhood education, housing assistance, mental health and substance abuse services and education services for children with autism.

The center helps 400 to 600 people a month, and needs $80,000 to keep providing excellent services or $40,000 just to stay intact, Harr said.

Not all the speakers asked the council to spend more money.

Joan Fidler, of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, asked the council to trim “unsustainable” 6.9 percent to 9 percent proposed pay raises for county employees.

Fidler also urged the council to lower the county’s energy tax by 20 percent, and to fund the county’s school system at the maintenance of effort level required by the state.

Leggett’s budget proposes funding the schools at $26 million more than maintenance of effort, which Fidler said would permanently affect the county’s budget into the future.

“Please do not pander to the educational establishment,” Fidler said.

Parents and other advocates from many of the county’s high school clusters urged the county to adopt the recommended school budget to meet the needs of schools and students around the county.

Fidler said the council should factor money into the budget to care for the county’s poor, homeless and disabled residents.

“Budgets are a matter of choices,” she said. “You have the power and the ability to make good ones.”

The council’s various committees will review the parts of the budget for their policy areas over the next month.

The full council is scheduled to take an unofficial vote on May 15, and officially adopt the budget on May 22, council spokesman Neil Greenberger said Tuesday.