2021 | Government

County Council approves $6B operating budget, $4.3B capital projects plan

‘Recovery’ budget supported by state, federal aid

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The Montgomery County Council on Thursday unanimously approved a $6 billion operating budget and $4.3 billion capital improvements plan for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.

“The budget we’ll vote on today isn’t perfect, I have yet to see one that is,” Council President Tom Hucker said before Thursday’s vote. “But it’s a strong and balanced budget that I’m confident will put our county on a path to recovery following this incredibly difficult time.”

The operating budget is about a $200 million increase from this year. Council members previously said federal and state coronavirus relief money helped fill in gaps caused by the pandemic. They quickly approved the operating budget and capital improvements plan in separate 9-0 votes. 

The county received $183.3 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and is projected to get an additional $204.1 million from the American Rescue Plan. Both were bills passed by Congress during the pandemic.

About $2.8 billion of the operating budget is slated for Montgomery County Public Schools, about $30 million more than this year. 

County Executive Marc Elrich proposed cutting 29 positions from the Montgomery County Police Department, including 25 sworn officers. Council members ended up cutting 27 sworn officer positions, many of which are vacant, including five school resource officers (SRO).

Elrich announced in March that he would end the SRO program after nearly a year of debate locally and nationally about the role police should have in schools.

He has proposed replacing the SRO program with one in which officers are no longer stationed in school buildings, but rather have assigned areas around schools and can be called upon, as needed. The development of the replacement program is ongoing. 

The school board this month affirmed that there will not be officers in schools, but emphasized it was not their choice. 

“The decision (about the program’s future) was taken from us,” board member Pat O’Neill said at a recent meeting, a sentiment echoed by other members. “… But it’s time for us to really, now that everyone is on board, or moving in that direction, to really fight for the resources that we need to support our children in the buildings.”

Despite the cut in positions, the police budget is projected to grow by $1.6 million — less than 1 percent — partly because there are scheduled pay increases.

This year’s budget was different from last year’s because Elrich and council members agreed on property tax rates.

In March 2020, Elrich proposed about a 5-cent tax increase for fiscal year 2021, most of which was allocated to education through a special 3.18-cent supplemental property tax. County Council members rejected that plan.

But this time, Elrich and council members agreed to keep the average property tax rate at 97.85 cents per $100 of assessed value. The income tax offset credit — provided against the county’s real property tax rate to offset increases of more than 2.6% of the county income tax revenues — will also stay at $692 next year, the same as this year.

Even as the property-tax rate stays the same, some residents will pay more money if assessments on their property increase. The state’s Department of Assessments and Taxation conducts those assessments.

Overall, Elrich proposed a $6 billion operating budget in March. Council members then spent more than a dozen meetings reviewing it as a full body and in committee work sessions. There also were three evening public hearings on the operating budget.

Although they didn’t cut from the overall budget, they did cut a little less than $16 million from Elrich’s proposed amount for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, funding that agency at $152.9 million. That is an increase of almost 6% versus this year. 

To help public health officials navigate what many hope are the closing months and aftermath of the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget is more than $363 million, up about $25 million, or 7% from fiscal 2021. It also is an increase from Elrich’s proposal of about $359 million.

The Health and Human Services’ budget includes $1.1 million for a new wellness center at Seneca Valley High School that will open in the fall. A little more than $800,000 was allocated to expand mental health services for MCPS students.

County employees will receive some form of a raise, depending on where they work. The county paid a total of $89 million in hazard pay for employees who worked in close contact with the public during the pandemic. When hazard pay ended, the county agreed to give raises instead. 

Other highlights in the $6 billion operating budget include:

  • $233 million for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue Service, up $7.7 million from this year for emergency supply costs and apparatus maintenance 
  • $229 million for the county’s Department of Transportation, down more than $6 million  because of less bus service and other factors 
  • $134.1 million for the county’s Recycling and Resource Management Fund. The $2.6 million, or roughly 2%, increase to help improve partnerships with Bethesda and Silver Spring organizations, including more recycling bins in their downtown districts
  • $11 million for the Early Care and Education Initiative, which expands child care and education access for children from underserved communities. It is a $5 million increase from this year for that fund.  
  • $1 million to fund six new full-time employees in the Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice, an increase of more than 70 percent 

In the capital budget, council members supported $20.4 million to expand the county’s  recycling center in Derwood.

They also approved $12 million to improve bus and bike lanes and other transit-related components between the Great Seneca Science Corridor to the Shady Grove Metro Station.

Another $28.3 million was approved for JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres in Silver Spring to increase school capacity due to crowding. Nearly $123 million was allocated to eventually reopen Charles W. Woodward High School in North Bethesda, to accommodate a growing student population. 

Elrich said during a news briefing Wednesday that the pandemic presented challenges during this budget cycle, but he’s faced similar circumstances as county executive.

In 2018, a day after he was sworn in, Elrich said, county officials told him there was at least $40 million in projected revenue shortfalls. Then in early 2019, about two weeks before completing the budget, state officials told him about another $40 million in shortfalls.

When Elrich drafted his next budget, in March 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency due to the pandemic.

“I’ve had some practice in dealing with unusual budgets,” Elrich said.

He added, however, that he’s proud of the budget he and council members finalized, including more money for mental health services, education and other crucial needs.

“This year’s budget [is] where we’re able to fund most things, but knowing a lot of that help is coming from the federal government, which has helped us do the things we were expected to do, which makes it a little less like a totally normal budget, but were reasonably optimistic,” Elrich said. “It’s been challenging for three budgets to never have a normal circumstance to provide a budget in.”

Staff writer Caitlynn Peetz contributed to this story. 

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