It‚Äôs a busy time for the County Council. Faced with state-level budget cuts, Montgomery County leaders are making tough decisions and addressing challenging issues. I sat down with Phil Andrews to discuss some of the topics that impact our readers.
State lawmakers returned to Annapolis on May 14 in an effort to end the ‚Äúdoomsday‚ÄĚ budget, and their decisions about tax hikes will have a major impact on local government assistance, public education and social programs in Montgomery County in fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1.
In most years, those decisions are made by this time and the County Council is moving through a budget process with the full knowledge of how much money can be spent. Not so this spring.
At press time on May 15, the Maryland Senate was considering a package of tax increases. The House of Delegates was expected to begin its consideration of the tax package immediately following the bill‚Äôs presumed passage by the Senate.
Prior to the special session, Andrews spoke about the potential impact of potential doomsday budget cuts in Montgomery County. He noted that in the current lean fiscal year, all county employees have had the same freeze on their salaries, including no cost of living adjustments.
‚ÄúAs well, everybody but school system employees had furloughs, which are essentially salary cuts,‚ÄĚ said Andrews, whose central Montgomery County district includes Gaithersburg, Rockville, Washington Grove, Leisure World, and parts of Aspen Hill, Derwood, North Potomac and Potomac. ‚ÄúCounty employees were furloughed between three and eight days, college employees three to five days, Park and Planning employees were furloughed 10 days — some people in the State‚Äôs Attorney‚Äôs Office were furloughed for two years. ‚Ä¶ The savings from one day of school system furlough would be $8 million.‚ÄĚ
Overall, in making budget cuts, Andrews said, ‚ÄúWe have to balance needs. We want to ensure equity in terms of how all employees are treated.‚ÄĚ
Recently, he said, at Montgomery County Public Schools, classroom pupil count was increased by one student to save $16 million.
‚ÄúEighteen furlough hours (2.2 days) equals $16 million. ‚Ä¶ Sixteen million was the cost of adding one pupil per class,‚ÄĚ said Andrews. ‚ÄúThis addition to class size could have been avoided.
‚ÄúWe have to ask, ‚ÄėAre the actions of the county Board of Education affecting adults, or are they affecting children? ‚Ä¶ It is a choice.‚ÄĚ
On May 15, the County Council voted 6-3 to approve an ambulance fee rejected by county voters in a 2010 ballot referendum. The fee, which was originally passed by the County Council before the 2010 referendum, was put back on the table by County Executive Isiah Leggett. Leggett asked the County Council to pass the measure in order to raise $14 million to $17 million, which would help offset anticipated losses in state funding.
According to Leggett, patients with health insurance will be billed for ambulances, which he says will be covered by their insurance. People without health insurance and people below a certain income threshold will not be charged for ambulance services.
Andrews was a leader in the fight to defeat the ambulance fee by referendum in 2010 and hoped to defeat it in the County Council. The voters have spoken, he says.
‚ÄúThis was the only successful referendum in the history of Montgomery County,‚ÄĚ Andrews said before the May 15 County Council vote to reinstate the measure. ‚ÄúVoters will wonder why they should even bother to vote if their will is just ignored [by their elected officials.]‚ÄĚ
Ambulance services are the job of government, he says. ‚ÄúIt is not appropriate to charge anyone a fee.‚ÄĚ
Disposal of Public Property
Recently the County Council voted to strip the county executive of sole decision-making on the disposal of property owned by the taxpayers of Montgomery County. The new measure requires the County Council to approve the sale or long-term lease of most county properties. Prior to the new measure, the county executive could unilaterally dispose of a property without the Council‚Äôs approval.
County Executive Ike Leggett vetoed the new law on May 14 — his first veto as county executive. However, the following day, the Council voted (6 ‚Äď 3) to override that veto, thus reinstating the measure. Phil Andrews voted with the majority in support of the measure.
‚ÄúMy concern is about the need for the Council to do due diligence with regard to disposal of public property,‚ÄĚ said Andrews.
He discussed the land at 9710 Great Seneca Highway, Rockville, which for a long time was home to the Montgomery County Public Safety Training Academy (PSTA), which will be moving to a new location.
‚ÄúThe sale of the PTSA is upcoming,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThe county executive put out a (request for proposal) which included no incentive for developers to include affordable housing.‚ÄĚ
County Council involvement ‚Äúwill strengthen chances across the county for (inclusion) of affordable housing,‚ÄĚ said Andrews.
Currently petitions are being circulated to include a referendum in November on rejecting the newly drawn Maryland Congressional districts.
Andrews supports the measure. Pointing especially to the new 6th (includes Gaithersburg) and the 3rd Districts, where neighborhoods were divided to accomplish specific political ends, Andrews said, from a good government point of view, the new boundaries are indefensible.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs appalling. ‚Ä¶ People picked at random from the phone book could have done a better job,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm going to support the effort to throw it out.‚ÄĚ