The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a $6.3 billion operating budget for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1, and a $5.3 billion capital budget for fiscal 2023 to 2028.

The operating budget represents roughly a $300 million increase over spending for fiscal 2022, which ends June 30. It also keeps the average property tax rate at 97.85 cents per $100 of assessed value. The income tax offset credit will also stay at $692 for each eligible resident, the same as last year. 

County Council President Gabe Albornoz praised the county’s fiscal 2023 spending plan, saying it continues to support efforts undertaken during the pandemic to help the county’s most vulnerable residents. It also includes a record investment for public education and considerable resources for economic development, he said.

“We’ve checked as many boxes as we can with this budget,” Albornoz said. “We, as is often the case, are not able to fulfill every request. But I feel that on balance, thanks in large part to our partners at the federal and state level, we’ve been able to meet most of our needs,” he said.

County Executive Marc Elrich repeatedly noted during deliberations over his proposed budget that his spending plan marked the first time during his four years in office that he was able to fund many services and programs that the county couldn’t afford in prior years. Those include many more social and health care programs for vulnerable and lower-income residents. 

In his first year in office, he had to cut tens of millions of dollars from his budget proposal because of a drop in revenue projections, Elrich said. During the pandemic, he has had to introduce two budgets that essentially include the same services and programs as before, without any additions, he and other county officials have said.

The $6.3 billion operating budget includes $2.9 billion for Montgomery County Public Schools. That’s about $100 million more than the district’s current budget. Some of the funding will be used to enhance school safety and bolster mental health services for students and staff. 

The council also approved raises for police officers, firefighters, other first responders, and general county employees in order to make their salaries more competitive with salaries paid by other jurisdictions in the Washington, D.C., region.

Those included a 13.5% pay increase for most police officers; a 9.3% increase for county union employees; an 8.5% increase for career firefighters; and a 7.3% increase for non-represented employees.

The Montgomery County Police Department received more than $296 million, an increase of about 4.5% over its current spending. The council agreed to increase the number of participants in the department’s cadet program from 12 to 25 officers, along with adding 24 other new positions. All but three of those positions will be filled with civilians, and the new positions range from more officers to help review body camera footage to those that will handle Maryland Public Information Act requests, and other duties.

The council also approved more than $421 million for the Department of Health and Human Services, almost 16% more than the fiscal 2022 budget. The funding includes about $10 million to increase mental wellness and other wraparound services at county public high schools. That effort was spearheaded by County Council Member Nancy Navarro, who is leaving office at the end of the year along with colleagues Hans Riemer and Craig Rice because of term limits. Riemer is running for county executive.

The county’s capital improvement plan includes $1.7 billion for MCPS, maintaining funding for school construction projects budgeted over the next six years.

The plan also includes a total of $26 million in fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for the High School Wellness Center Project, which aims to establish wellness services in every MCPS high school.

The capital improvement plan also allocates $333.9 million to Montgomery College, notably for the construction of the Catherine and Isiah Leggett Math and Science Building on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus and a fourth campus in the eastern part of the county. Ike Leggett served three terms as county executive, from 2006-2018. 

The capital and operating budgets also include just over $200 million to be spent on affordable housing in fiscal year 2023, ranging from preservation of currently affordable housing units to the construction of new projects.

Rice said in an interview the budget “solidifies” many practices and programs that were implemented during the pandemic, ranging from better health care services and economic development to small business support.

The spending plan also focuses on providing better educational opportunities for kids in need, including through summer learning programs and equity hubs placed throughout the county that will provide health and mental wellness services and other wraparound services, Rice added.

“We now have incorporated [those] as a part of our standard operating procedure. That’s different,” Rice said. “Before, it was kind of doubling down on things that we knew are good, but not necessarily new and innovative things to take us to the next level, in terms of addressing some of the inequities we saw in our community.”

Both Rice and Albornoz acknowledged that the county has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state support the last couple of years, which has helped with some services and programming. 

Rice said investing in economic development will be critical to creating revenue that the county will need. 

“We can’t tax our way out of this problem,” Rice said. “The reality is that we as a community have to continue to grow economic opportunities.”

Albornoz agreed.

“We cannot simply rely on the tax revenue from individual residents alone. That is not sustainable,” Albornoz said. “And so we are going to have to grow our economy overall for us to be able to balance out the revenue we’ll need to address the needs of the county moving forward.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com