Tense politics surrounding county budget leave bitter taste
Community organizations troubled by potential cuts in school funding and gang and drug prevention efforts expressed concern over negotiations within the Montgomery County Council over property tax cuts. The Council is expected to take final action on the budget in its meeting today.
County Executive Doug Duncan originally proposed a property tax cut of two cents per $100 of assessed value in his record $3.6 billion budget for 2006. However, the Council has been divided on whether or not to increase the cuts and how best to compensate for the money lost.
Cutting gang initiatives
Council members have expressed reluctance to cut funding from MCPS's budget, which accounts for over half of Montgomery County's total budget, so the Council's Health and Human Services Committee recommended earlier this month that the county reduce its 2006 budget by $2.6 million. Cuts under the committee's plan would be concentrated in gang and drug prevention initiatives instituted during recent efforts to combat the spread of gangs in the area.
Specifically, the cuts would halt funding for the construction of a nearby Langley Park community center aimed at keeping students out of gangs. The newly-created post of gang prevention coordinator might also be eliminated.
Council members made the decision to eliminate funding for 20 out of the 52 requested new police positions. Among the cuts were six out of the seven officers Duncan had requested in order to create a gang task unit. Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) maintains that the budget will still include a substantial increase in police funding. "It's an increase of 32 officers, not a decrease of 20," he said in a phone interview on May 12.
The cuts would be felt within the Blair community, where gang participation has risen steadily in recent years. Staff and administrators have been working closely with police to contain gang activity, especially since the formation of the Joint County Gang Prevention Task Force last fall. The task force called for increases in the number of in-school police officers and countywide programs to fight gangs.
Schools may suffer
In addition to cuts in gang prevention resources, reduced funding for proposed school initiatives may be inevitable. The school system has applied for several new initiatives within its $1.7 billion budget request, but reductions in the suggested increase are expected.
Among the potential cuts are an initiative to expand Duncan's elementary school class-size reduction to middle and high schools and a human resource development plan aimed at addressing staff bias, both sources of concern for Blair PTSA Co-President Fran Rothstein. "We have insufficient funds for schools now. If they cut the budget for next year, we will have a worse situation," she said.
Rothstein also expressed concerns about increasing funds for the rising number of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students in the county given the budget cuts. "The main issue is that the population at Blair and in the Blair feeder schools is becoming more and more diverse. We need translation services, cultural outreach, the ability to connect many students with social services outside the schools, and those are expensive," she said.
However, Andrews asserted that cuts in school funding would be limited to nonessential requests and would be "unlikely to have any effect within the classroom." "We're scrutinizing all budgets and looking at the proposals to see whether they are the best use of limited funds," he said.
Meeting the cap
The tax cuts are an attempt on the part of the Council to provide tax relief after several increases that, along with the county's booming real estate market, have left the government with substantial revenue. The Council is prohibited by law to raise property taxes beyond increases caused by inflation without the approval of seven of the nine council members, but for the past three years, additional increases have been approved.
This year, a majority of the council members have advocated for seven-cent tax rate decreases, the reduction necessary in order to meet the cap. The cut would eliminate about $70 million from Duncan's proposed budget.
Several council members advocated increasing Montgomery County's energy tax for the third time in as many years in order to meet the property tax cap and alleviate cuts of school funding. "We can provide additional property tax relief above and beyond what the county executive has proposed by increasing the energy tax," said Andrews.
To reach the cap and offset recent increases in property taxes, the Council would have to raise the energy tax by about 40 percent while maintaining the $25 million in possible cuts it has already identified.
Conflicting views over the Council's budget have left Duncan at odds with council members. While Duncan is preparing for a gubernatorial campaign in the coming year, some critics argue that the Council, which is up for reelection next year, is seeking to quell unrest over rising property taxes throughout the county.
Others blame the controversy on Duncan's campaign, stating that Duncan has increased county spending by nearly 90 percent over the past decade, funding such initiatives as a countywide class-size reduction in elementary schools and the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring in response to the Maryland electorate's emphasis on school and social services support.
The council members, many of whom were endorsed in their electoral bids by Duncan, were initially supportive of Duncan's spending. This year is the first time the Council has seen such a clash over budget approval in a year when there is no fiscal crisis.
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Samir Paul. <b>Samir Paul</b>, a Magnet senior, spent the better part of his junior year at Blair brooding over everyone's favorite high-school publication and wooing Room 165's menopausal printer. He prides himself in being <i>THE</i> largest member of Blair Cross Country and looks forward to one more … More »