Saturday, January 1, 2011

Year-End Ruminations and Looking at 2011

Happy New Year – as we welcome 2011, many of us are happy to see 2010 end.

Montgomery County has weathered some tough times this year. The year started out promisingly as the county volunteer corps worked hard to involve residents in service to others. A record amount of food was collected for county food banks and volunteers helped in service hours. Many youth volunteers participated in events around the Dr. Martin Luther King birthday commemorative celebrations.

The "snowmageddon" experience set the tone for the winter months, as residents dug out from back-to-back record snowfalls for totals of more than four feet in many areas. Large numbers of residents also suffered from power outages as once again our power company was not up to the task at hand. The economy took another blow as county commerce, education and business services ground to a halt for more than a week in February. Some faulted the snow removal, (and many did wait several days -- especially in the upper county -- to be released from their cul-de-sacs) but when the job is divided between, state, local and private providers, there is lots of blame and praise to be shared. Certainly the communication arm of the county government, once engaged, did a good job of informing the public. The county recently established an on-line grid system of snow mapping to track progress as neighborhoods get plowed. This will reportedly save much time for those who had only neighborhood listservs to rely on previously for news.

Council budget hearings brought no solutions to the problem of expenses exceeding income which grew worse by the month as 2010 moved forward. Projections of income spiraled downward as the year moved forward and belt tightening was required across all county departments. Education somehow thought it was exempted. Other county employees faced loss of expected raises, an absence of COLAs and future furloughs. Those under the education budget were not subjected to these restraints. Even though two-thirds of county employees (some 22,000 or so) fall under the $2.4 billion allocated to education, disproportionate cuts were required for the remainder of the 10,000 employees outside this scope. Waivers of the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) regulation were allowed by the Maryland General Assembly for last year when the budget cuts were necessarily so severe. This year the need is assumed to be just as stark, but the remedy may not be approved. Still, there remain many in the County who think that the non education department employees should not bear the burden of cuts solely. The Board of Education claimed that they could not disregard contractual requirements nor ignore the MoE, so they were unable to cut salaries or reduce ultimate costs at all. This year, enrollment has increased, so the educational budget has also been bumped up. This does not appear to be a sustainable practice, some rational remedy must be legitimatized to mandate savings.

Now we have the same Governor and state officials in Annapolis, the same County Executive is in place here, a slightly different county council and delegation were elected and the Board of Education shows no changes. What can we expect for this budget year?

Cuts of 15% are being requested across many county department budgets this year. The libraries and parks seemed to be hardest hit last year -- they can no longer bear the brunt of budget decreases. Where can cuts realistically be made? Previous suggestions of increased cost sharing and pooling of resources appear to be more necessary than ever before. Duplications of programs and services can no longer be allowed. Other redundancies must be explored and removed where possible. If the county is to meet the needs of public safety and education and the necessary social safety net services, each department must find some way to cut costs. Montgomery County has taken pride in finding solutions, paying for the programs it wants. Residents expect the county to solve all problems. Perhaps in the second half of the year the economy will start to turn around; however we do not have a crystal ball yet, in order to allow us to move forward without the resources. The warnings from the financial markets last year, about our lack of adequate reserves, should have been a wake-up call indicating that we must be more financially prudent. The financial plan put in place last year which gradually increases reserve set- asides should help, but it is not the only solution. We need also to better plan for the long term and for the rainy days. We should be able to expect the state to step in and help, rather than have the state pension issue looming as a threat to any financial planning.

Now that the New Year has arrived, we need to get to work and find a way to establish a budget which will make certain that the county's business gets done well. The quality of life issues which make this county unique and keep it such a great place to live and work in must also be considered by our elected officials. Can this be done without raising the property tax? Where should the money come from now that we cannot count on ambulance reimbursements from insurance companies (aka "ambulance fees")?

What would you suggest? Share your opinion here.

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