The Montgomery County Council spent hours last week listening to about 150 people testify on County Executive Isiah Leggett's (D) proposed fiscal 2013 operating budget, some asking for more money, others requesting to retain what was proposed, a few questioning revenue sources.
Leggett has proposed to raise spending to $4.56 billion, an increase of about 4.6 percent, or $199 million, from the approved fiscal 2012 budget.
By maintaining higher energy tax rates, raised by the council in 2010, and increasing the property tax rate by 4.5 cents to 99.1 cents, Leggett's proposal expands spending on education, public safety and libraries.
"On the subject of taxes: we are greatly disheartened that the proposed budget extends the energy tax," said Joan Fidler, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. "As for the increase in property taxes, this is tax creep personified."
Some, including Montgomery County Chamber of Commercer President and Chief Executive Officer Gigi Godwin, encouraged the council to honor the sunset of the 2010 energy tax increase.
Other agencies asked for more money than Leggett proposed to give.
"While we recognize that these are difficult budgetary times, we strongly urge that the county increase funding for the Housing Initiative Fund to support the development of affordable housing," Robert Goldman, president of the Montgomery Housing Partnership testified. The proposed budget will only support a few projects at best, he said.
A few social service agencies asked the county to consider increasing their contracts by 2 percent to accommodate inflation in the cost to provide services to the public.
Yet many who testified asked the council to fund Leggett’s recommendations.
Leggett proposed to boost library funding by $2.7 million to about $31.2 million, adding 15 library positions, money for reading materials and restoring some hours of operation.
"Libraries are game changers," Jill Brantley of the Wheaton Library Advisory Committee testified. "This is not just a thank-you for doing what we wanted, it's an appreciation for your working with us, the citizen supporters of the library system in Montgomery County."
The executive's plan also proposes to increase education spending by about $50.7 million to more than $2 billion. Representatives of teacher, administrator and parent associations, as well as schools across the county, encouraged the council to fund education at the amount recommended.
Under Maryland law, the state can withhold county income taxes and distribute the money directly to county school boards should counties fail to meet education budgets and maintain at least prior year per-pupil spending, also known as maintenance of effort.
After of listening to others comment on the budget, council members took the state to task for its actions, and lack there of, that have complicated the budget process.
The failure of state legislators to pass a state budget on April 9 has only added to the council’s financial pressure, said Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park.
"And our choices have been made much, much more difficult by one of the most disappointing sessions of the Maryland General Assembly that I have ever seen ...," he said. "The decision to intrude on counties' ability to set priorities, to take away our income tax revenue ... really is very, very imbalanced because we need to fund education ... but we also need to pay for our police and we need our Fire and Rescue Service to be able to put out fires ... and we need to support our libraries and our parks and we need to provide for the needy and that task is going to be much more difficult, but the schools will be just fine as a result of the maintenance of effort law."
State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park, who testified on the budget Thursday, apologized for the bizarre ending in Annapolis marked by an historic lack of action that set a ticking clock for the doomsday budget or a special session that threatens to saddle counties with half of teacher pension costs.
"I share your disappointment and your frustration in a session that ended bizarrely and [in a] completely baffling way that was embarrassing to a lot of the members including me," Raskin said. "All I can say is I am working hard and trying to do my best."