County Executive Douglas M. Duncan today unveiled his FY06 Operating Budget, which includes a two-cent property tax cut and funds several new initiatives.
Montgomery County is the only county in Maryland where the county executive must present his budget while the General Assembly is still in session, leaving him to guess at how much funding the state will provide in important areas.
"Obviously you have to estimate very conservatively and the executive has done so," County Councilmember Howard Denis (R-1) said.
Over the next two months, the council will hold public hearings and work sessions on recommended budget and must vote to approve it by June 1.
"The council will go through it with a fine tooth comb and we will to make change and try to add value," Denis said, but added that he was pleased at Duncan's intention to fully meet Montgomery County Public Schools' funding request, to restore trash collection service in Montgomery County parks and to maintain current library hours
“Our residents are feeling the effects of the Ehrlich tax hike and the dramatic rise in property tax assessments, and I believe we need to provide them with some relief,” Duncan was quoted as saying in a press release.
With property assessments rising by 70 percent in areas assessed for 2005, including Potomac, homeowners are facing higher tax bills even with the cut in rate. Though annual tax increases are capped at 10 percent in the county, residents are likely to see their bills continue to rise, even after the two-cent rate cut.
"We have to balance the equities. It's a balance between the taxes we hate and the services we love. Sure, if we can provide more tax relief and maintain the services that would be desirable," Denis said, but the proposed cut is a good first step given the difficult balancing act.
Other highlights of the proposed budget include:
* Increasing funding for Montgomery County Public Schools by $116.1 million, or 7.2 percent, bringing the total schools budget to $1.7 billion. The Executive’s recommendation funds 100 percent of the amount requested by MCPS, assuming full funding by the State of the Thornton education funding formula.
Education funding has been a contentious issue in Annapolis, where legislators have cited the lack of funding as evidence of a weak commitment to education by the Ehrlich administration. Some have also pointed to Thornton needs as a justification for bringing slot machines to Maryland.
"You can talk about unfunded mandates and that's a legitimate point but Thornton is basically an unfunded promise," Denis said. "The legislature passed it a couple years ago but without a funding mechanism and that's where we still are."
The budget recommends fully funding Montgomery College’s request of $196.9 million, an increase of 17.9 percent over the FY05 estimated budget.
* Implementation of the first phase of a five-year plan to add 250 additional police personnel to the County’s police department. Associated with the staffing plan, Duncan is recommending two, 50-police officer recruit classes in FY06. To address an emerging public safety issue, the budget calls for the implementation of a $1.42 million Gang Prevention Initiative to be funded across several County departments.
* $3 million in new funding for the Montgomery Cares Health Care Program to provide access to health care for the uninsured. This funding represents the first year commitment of a five-year expansion effort to serve 40,000 uninsured individuals by fiscal year 2010. This program will provide for expansion of primary care office visits and prescription medications, and support pilot programs for oral and behavioral health.
* Increased support to low-income working men and women by boosting funding for the local earned income tax credit by $2.4 million - bringing the total to $10.5 million - matching the State’s benefit increases for the 22,060 families who will receive benefits.
* A $20 million allocation to the Housing Initiative Fund for acquisition, construction, and rehabilitation of the County’s affordable housing, following over a year of work by the County Council and county agencies to increase affordable housing.
* Full funding of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission tax-supported request of $91.3 million, an 11.7 percent increase over the FY05 estimated budget. The budget will address several maintenance backlog issues and provide funding to restore trash collection services in our parks.
* Continued funding for the management and improvement of the Agricultural Reserve. The budget includes additional new funding to promote Montgomery County agricultural services, as well as support for farmers to help address the deer overpopulation issue.