Montgomery County is recovering but not all the way back from the fiscal woes of the last few years, County Executive Isiah Leggett and other officials told residents at a budget forum on Monday in Bethesda.
Leggett, who held the event before the release of his recommended fiscal year 2014 operating budget on March 15, cut 1,254 county positions from 2010 to 2012 and faced the loss of about $4 billion in property tax revenue during the recession.
Things have begun to turn around. But a county budget analyst warned there’s still limited room to restore some of the programming and positions that have been cut.
“Things are a little bit better, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Jennifer Hughes, director of the Montgomery County Office of Management and Budget.
As always, Hughes and Leggett described a budget that would be mostly devoted to three “given” areas: schools, public safety and debt service payment.
Montgomery County Public Schools took up 48 percent ($2.1 billion) of Leggett’s recommended $4.428 billion budget for last year, and that rate likely won’t change much. Combined with funding for public safety (police, fire, corrections and homeland security) and the payment of debt for capital projects, Hughes said there about 29 percent of the budget should be left for what she labeled “discretionary funding.”
Last year, a healthier budget cycle meant the restoration of 92 county positions and a recommended $37.7 million increase for public safety, $26.9 million increase for other employee compensation/fixed costs/non-public safety and $60 million increase for retiree health benefits.
Leggett touted the county’s new Open Data program as an example of a servie that increased government transparency while being affordable and innovative. He also relayed his belief that by the time his operating budget gets to the County Council, about 98 percent of it will be agreed upon.
County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) will likely have a role in wrangling over the remaining budget issues. He spoke at the forum and praised Leggett (D) for his “fiscal stewardship” during tough economic times, a recurring label that has come to define Leggett’s time in county government’s top position.
Monday’s forum was the third of five Leggett will host countywide. Tomorrow, he’ll head to the Silver Spring Civic Building before going to the East County next week.
The County Council approves the operating budget at the end of May.