Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Degrees of freeze

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After ordering Montgomery County agencies to begin scaling back spending by 2 percent before the holidays, County Executive Isiah Leggett last week imposed a hiring freeze, the first in nearly four years.

Both mandates are aimed at plugging a projected $400 million county budget deficit in the approaching fiscal year as tax collections soften. The hiring freeze comes nearly one month after the school system, aware of the rugged times ahead, put hiring for many vacancies on hold.

One top aide to Leggett called a 2004 hiring cap a ‘‘softer freeze,” which presumably means the current one is going to be harder. The question in what may be worsening economic times is: does the action go far enough?

Employee costs consume the largest share of increases in the county’s budget and raises have been historically generous. Pay raises of 5 percent are in the offing — even more for some based on the number of years they have been on the job.

The County Council has in past lean times put off cost-of-living adjustments and must consider doing the same when it begins combing through Leggett’s proposed budget in the months ahead. The leader of one of the largest employees’ union says they can live with the latest freeze on jobs, barely a hardship considering in the executive branch, only 66 of 9,400 positions are currently vacant.

Where the trouble comes for the county’s executive and council is making cuts in services, countering the howls of special interests and salving fears that essential safety services like police and fire protection could be reduced.

Take the case of a plan to end a 7-year-old program that allowed middle- and high-school students to hop aboard county transit Ride On buses for free on weekday afternoons. Miffed parents and students say the cost savings, estimated at $25,000, are a drop in the bucket and will force upheaval in the daily routines of many families. The answer from the county would require youths to buy $10 monthly passes ($5 in the summer) for the rides.

More alarming to some is the suggestion that a fire truck in Hillandale be taken out of service and that some emergency rescue crews in the Germantown area be shifted, changes that would save more than $1.7 million, but could lengthen the time it takes to get aid.

And with the tighter budget, new questions are surfacing over the prudence of providing millions of dollars to help attract a private music venue to downtown Silver Spring.

All of these matters are playing out on the local stage. More county funding problems will hinge on what happens in the next three months of the state legislature, which opens today in Annapolis. Lawmakers are expected to debate shifting more responsibility for funding teacher pensions to the counties, which could force Montgomery alone to pony up more than $100 million.

Leggett’s team, and the new council president, Michael J. Knapp, are facing a crucial leadership test. As unpopular as some of the cuts are proving to be, they are necessary and the logic behind them must be rock-solid.