County Executive Ike Leggett’s line-item veto Friday of a County Council decision concerning the awarding of stormwater management project contracts was the first time such a measure has been used by a Montgomery County executive in 25 years.
Leggett vetoed the County Council’s move to maintain the current method for awarding contracts for stormwater management projects as part of the capital budget. The county executive has proposed changing the method to enable the hiring of one contractor to design, build and maintain projects that would fulfill state-mandated requirements to treat runoff from a certain number of acres of impervious surface.
Currently the county hires different contractors for each stage of a project—a process Leggett believes is inefficient and costly.
“This is the first line-item veto of my nearly 12 years as county executive,” Leggett wrote in the letter sent Friday to council President Hans Riemer. “In fact, it is the first such veto since 1993. I do not take this action lightly.”
The council last month voted 5-4 to keep the traditional contracting method for the projects that are undertaken to prevent sediment and pollution from flowing into streams, rivers and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
Council members in support of the current method said it enabled the county’s Department of Environmental Projection staff to choose projects based on their environmental benefits. They also wanted the department to spend about $48 million over six years to continue working on projects that have already been mostly designed, but not yet implemented. The county had previously suspended work on about 44 projects while the contracting change was being debated.
Since 2010 the county has been required by the state to treat runoff from about 3,800 acres of impervious surface. It failed to meet the five-year deadline imposed by the state to do so and was forced to enter into a consent decree. Officials say the county expects to meet the requirement this year. However, once it meets that goal, the state is expected to impose a new acreage treatment requirement, which county officials expect to be significantly less than the current requirement.
Environmental advocates in the county expressed concern about Leggett’s proposal because they believe a contractor tasked with treating a significant portion of the acres required by the state permit would design and build projects that treat the most acres for the lowest cost. Those projects may not provide the most environmental benefit despite meeting state requirements, the advocates have said.
The council has already approved a number of reforms Leggett has proposed—including slashing the six-year capital budget for stormwater management projects by about $243 million to $102.5 million—but has not supported the proposed change in how contracts are awarded.
Leggett wrote in the letter that it remains “incomprehensible” to him how the five council members “who purportedly have the best interests of our county taxpayers and environment in mind, were able to take an action so clearly against greater efficiencies and effectiveness in an important taxpayer-funded county program.”
Leggett has said the contracting change will enable a program that he believes has grown far too costly to fulfill in a cost-effective manner the new permit requirement expected from the state. The county uses revenue from the Water Quality Protection Charge, known derisively as the “rain tax,” to pay for stormwater management projects. Since 2002, that fee on property tax bills has risen from $12 to $104.25 per year for the average resident. Leggett, who leaves office at the end of year, had hoped future county leaders would be able to gradually decrease the fee.
Council member George Leventhal, who is running for county executive, has supported Leggett’s proposal. He said Friday that having one contractor handle the projects would enable them to get done faster and more efficiently. He said the Silver Spring Transit Center project experienced issues due to the design contractor and construction contractor not being on the same page. He said he believes the council majority that voted against Leggett’s proposal is trying to delay making a decision.
“I think the council majority is more worried about the next election than they are about making wise decisions on behalf of the taxpayer,” Leventhal said.
Leggett wrote he believed the council crossed a line in its county charter-delineated responsibilities by imposing its will on how to run a county program. He wrote the council is attempting to “micro-manage the implementation of a county program.”
“It is also wrong on the substance,” Leggett wrote. “It hurts our environmental efforts. It prevents needed changes. It ensures that county taxpayers will pay more and more in stormwater management fees—and get less and less in return.”
He said the county would maintain control of oversight over the projects and community engagement if it moves forward with the contracting method he is proposing.
“I regret that you and the council majority have made this veto necessary,” Leggett wrote. “Playing politics with a critical environmental issue, doubling down a costly and inefficient status quo, and kicking the proverbial can down the road will never be confused with effective governance.”
Riemer said in late May that the council would need to either compromise with Leggett or find the six votes necessary to override his veto. It’s not clear when the council will meet next to discuss the issue—they are scheduled to be on recess until mid-June.