Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Residents: We can’t afford more taxes

Upcounty hosts Leggett for first of six community forums on the county budget

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Upcounty community members urged the county executive to steer clear of tax increases, but still provide support for ESOL programs, libraries and youth activities.

About 60 people attended a budget forum with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett Monday night in Germantown to discuss operating budget priorities for fiscal 2009, which begins in July. It was the first of six forums scheduled throughout the county this month.

Residents also asked for more funding for mental health services and many said they were concerned about a lack of affordable housing.

‘‘My kids can’t afford to live in this county anymore, the firemen and the police officers can’t afford to live here anymore,” said Doug Noble of Damascus, a volunteer EMT who also noted that the upcounty needs improved fire rescue services.

The sentiment was echoed by Raul Medrano, a business development specialist in the county’s Department of Economic Development, who said that companies are worried about affordable housing for employees.

Leggett (D) said that a report is expected from a county affordable housing task force at the end of the month.

The county is facing a projected $401 million deficit, a figure that Leggett said could grow due to a new 6 percent sales tax to computer services and an estimated $1.5 billion state budget deficit. In fiscal 2008, Leggett reduced budget growth from 9 percent to 6.7 percent without raising taxes, a feat he said he could not promise to duplicate in fiscal 2009.

‘‘There is no magical bullet that’s coming out there to our rescue. We have to get out of it by ourselves and we have to be realistic about it,” Leggett said, adding that he would reduce expenditures as much as possible before considering tax increases. ‘‘...We need to make cuts at a level that will be painful and difficult. ...It will mean not just a reduction of services, it will mean an elimination of services.”

State legislators recommended $550 million in cuts and passed $890 million in new taxes during a special session that ended in November, and some residents said they couldn’t afford more taxes.

‘‘The tax teat is drying up,” said David Holtzman of Germantown. ‘‘I commend you for the painful cuts you are making now, but there needs to be additional cuts. Frankly, we here in Germantown, we here in Damascus, we here in Boyds cannot afford further taxes.”

In order to help close the gap for fiscal 2008, Leggett implemented a hiring freeze and directed county agencies and departments to cut their budgets by 2 percent. At the forum, Leggett said he will ensure that the school system, whose budget makes up half the county’s spending, carries its fair share of the burden. Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendant Jerry D. Weast proposed a $2.11 billion plan in December for fiscal 2009, a 6.3 percent increase from last year’s approved budget.

Leggett will send his budget to the County Council on March 15, according to information provided at the meeting. Public hearings will be held in early April, and the budget is scheduled to be approved by June.