April 14, 2010

OPINION: Budget needs more cuts, including schools

Commentary | Joan Fidler

County Executive Ike Leggett has proposed his budget for fiscal 2011; the unions have responded ["Unions knock Leggett budget," March 17] and soon it will be time for the County Council to act. As taxpayers of the county who have ceded generously to the actions of the council in the past, we believe Leggett has demonstrated much courage for which he will, undoubtedly, be excoriated in the next several weeks by various and sundry factions.

Leggett has valiantly done his part; it is time for the council members to do theirs. The elimination of pay raises and step increases was a brave and judicious decision, as were the furloughs. However, the mere 3.4 percent reduction to the budget of the public schools will cause unfair and unjust hardship to all the other services available to county taxpayers. The pain is not fairly spread. The public schools consume over 50 percent of our tax-supported budget while only 25 percent of the county's households have children in our public schools. This is not to denigrate the good work done by our public schools. We have an excellent public school system; we have dedicated teachers as we have an excellent county government with superior services and dedicated civil servants.

Many of the other budget cuts for fiscal 2011 have been quite draconian. Public libraries have been cut 22 percent — library cardholders represent 77 percent of the population. Transportation has been cut 23 percent — our roads are used by close to our entire population. The vulnerable and poor have not been excluded from budget cuts. The Department of Housing and Community Affairs has been cut 24 percent, much of which provides affordable housing to the less affluent in the county. The Department of Health and Human Services has been cut 11 percent, thus reducing services to seniors, the disabled, the uninsured and the ill.

The decision about our future now lies with the County Council. We ask for fairness toward all the citizens and taxpayers of the county. We ask, as they look toward the elections in November, they realize that there are more than just apples on our ballots. Let us not cut deeply into services to the vulnerable, let us not shortchange libraries and roads and transportation. And yes, there are options that can be exercised this year. Here is one: in the spirit of fairness, bring the health benefits of public school employees in alignment with those of their colleagues in the county government. The resultant savings of $30 million could bring our county reserves back to the 6 percent required for the county to maintain its bond ratings. There are many other options available to the council.

Let us not defer decisions by borrowing $100 million from the rainy day fund, and by dipping $37 million into county reserves. And let us not forget the Sword of Damocles of $5 million to $8.5 million in annual costs of "phantom COLAs," guaranteed lifetime pension benefits for county employees linked to pay increases they never received. We are mortgaging the county's future. Economic resurgence is not around the corner. Fiscal 2012 will inevitably be here. If we don't cut now what will we do then?

The writer is president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. SOURCE: Gazette

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