May 3, 2010

Councilman Mike Knapp's budget proposal

While the economy may indeed be recovering, it sure doesn’t feel that way for most of our county residents or government. Jurisdictions across the country are facing staggering budget shortfalls—and Montgomery County is no exception. As a result of declining revenue, the County is looking at a budget deficit as high as $600 million. Montgomery County has never seen a shortfall of this magnitude, even during the rough 1992 recession. Consequently, we’re already implementing a second set of mid-year reductions to County services. Next year looks even worse. We can solve our problems, as difficult as they are, if we’re willing to do things differently.

As we begin working on next year’s budget, I’m reminded of Albert Einstein’s admonition that you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. With that in mind, we can’t possibly address such an unprecedented fiscal crisis by traveling the same course and expect to solve our problem. For this reason, I’m proposing to do something we’ve never done before: work in the same room—from the beginning—on the budget.

The current process doesn’t encourage such cooperation. The County Charter says the County Executive submits a budget to the Council based on his own numbers, assumptions and priorities. The Council then crafts a budget reflecting its numbers, assumptions and priorities. Essentially, you’re working with two different budgets. In ordinary times, this convoluted approach works well enough to assemble a fairly reasonable budget, though historically it results in spending more money than the previous year. But these are not ordinary times—we actually have to reduce spending.

We must do all we can to minimize the damage severe reductions will have on vital services. You can’t simply ask every department or agency head to cut 10 or 15 percent from their individual budgets and expect things to work. Under my recommendation, we would all work together to develop a budget. The County Council, County Executive, Board of Education, the Superintendent of Schools, employee and union representatives, and the heads of our various government departments should sit down in the same room to first determine the magnitude of the problem we’re trying to solve. Once we all know, and agree on, the actual deficit, we can work to figure out how to close it. Only then we can have an honest conversation about spending priorities, including which programs and services might be reduced or eliminated.

This isn’t a gimmick, and it’s not an opportunity to score political points—we will be working together to make the “least bad” choices, which still won’t be popular. It is an opportunity to first tackle an enormous math problem and it then offers a chance to discuss real policy—and people—implications of shaping the equation. And for the first time, we won’t be working from two different budgets, but from the same one—a novel, but practical, approach. By working together, across government, we ensure that all of government is represented and that all stakeholders are contributing to understanding and solving our budget problems. In the end, the budget should not be something that’s done to any particular agency. Instead, it’s done with our agencies, to protect vital services, fund what is essential, and provide, to the extent possible, the services that residents need the most.

During difficult times we all say we can solve problems by working together. This year let’s not just say it. Let’s all get in the same room and do it. SOURCE: Mike Knapp

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