Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Gap Widens - Washington Post

Bad budget news gets worse for Montgomery County.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008; A20

WE'RE RUNNING out of adjectives to describe the widening budget gaps facing Washington area jurisdictions. Let's just say that most synonyms for "dire" could apply. The latest "dire" news comes from Montgomery County, where a projected $250 million shortfall for fiscal 2010 (the current operating budget is $4.3 billion) is likely to at least double. A deficit estimated at between $400 million and $600 million should dispel any thought that the county can scrimp its way to solvency. Deep cuts to services, and possibly layoffs, are in the offing.

Montgomery's budget leans heavily on taxes on property and capital gains. Both sources of revenue have swung sharply downward in recent months, draining the county's coffers. Earlier this year, the county shored up its budget by voting to increase property tax rates by more than 13 percent. That option is off the table next year, as County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has vowed not to raise taxes. Meanwhile, demand for some essential county services is on the rise. The Post's Ann E. Marimow reported that requests for canned food are up 45 percent this month over the same month last year, for example.

At a time when many Montgomery residents are thankful to have jobs -- the county's October unemployment rate sneaked above 3.5 percent, a 30 percent increase from last year -- county employees are set to receive pay increases in excess of 8 percent. If the county were to cut the cost-of-living adjustments -- which account for more than five percentage points of the increases -- it would save $125 million. Officials are unlikely to find a bigger chunk of savings elsewhere in the budget.

Unfortunately, the County Council and Mr. Leggett's office have been engaged in petty budget spats that ignore the bigger picture. The council recently rejected about $19 million in spending cuts for the school system proposed by the county executive. Mr. Leggett's office contends that the council let the school system off easy, but Superintendent Jerry D. Weast is already working to pare the schools budget. The council also delayed voting on Mr. Leggett's ambulance fee proposal, which would generate about $14 million.

In the early 1990s, facing a similar budget crisis, county leaders banded together to minimize layoffs. Employees made reasonable concessions on pay increases, and lawmakers put aside their differences long enough to make necessary cuts. County leaders should rediscover that spirit of compromise and make the best of a bad situation.

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