The Republican wave that hit Maryland and the federal government missed Montgomery County, but local Democratic leaders appear cognizant of public perception and are shifting the conversation about the county's goals to economic initiatives.
On Monday morning, County Executive Isiah Leggett was inaugurated to a third term and was joined by nine fellow Democrats, including seven incumbents, beginning four-year terms on the Montgomery County Council.
The inauguration at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville highlighted Leggett’s eight previous years at the helm of the county, which is now facing an unknown financial future. The election of Republican Larry Hogan as governor has raised questions about the future of major long-term county initiatives, including the proposed Purple Line and requests for more school construction funding from the state.
Leggett, who campaigned for Hogan’s opponent Anthony Brown, did not mention Hogan in his inauguration speech. Instead Leggett focused on a number of county business initiatives that seemed like peace offerings on behalf of the county, which primarily voted for Brown. The initiatives are also meant to attack what Leggett described as a "myth" that Montgomery County is unfriendly to business.
“We must recognize that we still have much more work to do to help our beloved Montgomery County live up to its full potential,” Leggett said. He reiterated the county’s achievements over the past eight years, including maintaining the county’s AAA bond rating, reducing overall crime by 27 percent, planning for the Purple Line, navigating the economic downturn and creating the “broadest” recycling program in the region.
Leggett then pitched a six-point economic plan that frames the county’s proposed business initiatives.
The plan includes $30 million more for the county’s MOVE program, which offers technology companies financial assistance to reduce rent costs during the first year they lease new office space in the county; an idea to institute a 30-day timeline for approval of local development projects; and creation of a new transit authority to focus resources on implementing major county transportation projects.
The 30-day timeline for development projects would be a major shift for the county’s approval process, which currently takes on average two years to complete for preliminary and site plan approvals.
Leggett also mentioned plans to expand the “MC squared program,” which allows high school students to graduate with associate of science degrees from Montgomery College, and to continue to develop county vocational programs that match students with local businesses for workforce training.
Both Leggett and the council will have to grapple with a slimming budget this year. A report last week in the Gazette noted the county is facing a $96 million shortfall after receiving only $346.7 million of the $443.1 million it expected to receive from the state. County Finance Director Joseph Beach told the newspaper the county’s $380 million in reserves should cover the shortfall, but spending may have to be limited.
Last month, Leggett issued a letter from the county’s Chief Administrative Officer Timothy Firestine that urged the council to be cautious when undertaking new initiatives that could cost the county money.
Outgoing council President Craig Rice, who won another four-year term on the council, acknowledged the fiscal situation during his inauguration speech, saying “apparently we have some work to do for this upcoming budget.” He encouraged local legislators to present a united front when dealing with upcoming fiscal issues.
“We must function as one Montgomery,” Rice said. “We must confront the challenges and embrace the opportunities that we have before us together.”
He said the unified front needs to include state and federal legislative delegations, which will be lobbying over the next few years to secure state funds for school construction and federal funds to help build the Purple Line—the light rail line proposed to connect Bethesda with Silver Spring and Prince George’s County.
“We continue to need strong federal and state support to make sure we achieve our goals,” Rice said.
He said Gov.-elect Hogan and the county both share goals that include a stronger economy and more jobs in Montgomery. “The key is we must do it together,” Rice said.
What is unknown is whether Hogan, an Annapolis businessman who is advocating for cutting the state’s budget and has spoken out against the Purple Line, will be supportive of the county’s initiatives. Hogan has said he plans to address state issues when he assumes office Jan. 21.
New Council Members
Tom Hucker and Sidney Katz are the two new faces on the council, joining incumbents Craig Rice, Nancy Navarro, Hans Riemer, Roger Berliner, Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and incoming council President George Leventhal.
Hucker, 47, of Silver Spring, was elected to the council after representing District 20 in the House of Delegates since 2007. Previously he founded and served as executive director of Progressive Maryland from 2001 to 2006. Hucker will assume the seat being vacated by Cherri Branson, who was appointed to the council earlier this year following Valerie Ervin’s resignation. Ervin left the council to become the executive director of the Center for Working Families, a nonprofit.
Sidney Katz joins the council after serving as the mayor of Gaithersburg since 1998. Katz is a lifelong county resident who graduated from Gaithersburg High School and took over his family’s department store, Wolfson’s, which he ran for 43 years before closing it in October 2013. He replaces outgoing councilmember Phil Andrews, who served 16 years on the council.
Andrews was praised at the inauguration by Leggett, who beat Andrews in this year’s Democratic primary for county executive.
“It has been an honor serving with you all of these years,” said Leggett, who also welcomed the new members by saying, “I know you’re ready for the adventure.”