County Council Moving Toward Adopting Two-Year Budget Process
Greater efficiency and analysis seen as benefits to changing cycles
The Montgomery County Council is moving toward adopting a two-year budget cycle, with the goal of saving time and evaluating the needs of various departments in advance to avoid last-minute budgeting.
County Executive Marc Elrich proposed the idea shortly after taking office in December. Members of his cabinet, including Budget Director Rich Madaleno and Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine, have also pushed the idea, suggesting that having more time to design a budget would allow county officials to determine which services are underperforming, and ensure that each dollar spent yields better results – something Kleine often refers to as “outcome-based budgeting.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states used a biennial budget as of 2011. Maryland, however, is not one of them. If Montgomery were to adopt the practice, it would be the first county in Maryland to do so, according to Maryland Association of Counties Executive Director Michael Sanderson.
King County, Washington is one locality with a two-year cycle that Montgomery has been studying.
King County Budget Director Dwight Dively said the county began using the biennial process a decade ago, first on a department-by-department basis, and then countywide four years ago. He said the results have been what they had hoped for in reducing the amount of forecasting work each agency needed to do every year.
“It’s a huge time-saver. It doesn’t save half the time, because you still have to do updates throughout the biennium, but we’ve freed up about 40% of the time that was spent doing an annual budget,” he said.
Montgomery, a county of just over 1 million people, has an annual budget of $5.8 billion. King County has twice Montgomery’s population and a biennial budget of $11.5 billion. Unlike Montgomery, there is no countywide school system in King County the government must fund year-to-year.
King County approves its biennial budget during years when there is not a local election , which is something Madaleno suggested during a council meeting last week might be a prudent practice for Montgomery.
The council has expressed reservations about abruptly transitioning to a biennial cycle, but approved a $100,000 supplement to the fiscal 2020 operating budget that will provide funding for a contractual information technology specialist and a transition to new software.
“I don’t think the council, should in supporting this appropriation, indicate that it supports the two-year budget cycle,” said council member Hans Riemer. “[But] I understand that if we don’t provide some support, how are you supposed to think it through?”
Council member Gabe Albornoz said he worries about condensing the work of a two-year budget process into a short amount of time.
“It’s hard enough to dig in for the larger departments within their own departments, but to see how they connect to other agencies is a real challenge,” he said.
Transitioning to the two-year cycle could take place as early as fiscal 2021 and 2022, but Madaleno said this process would involve going through the county attorney’s office to explore issues such as complying with the state’s maintenance of effort law — which mandates that Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College receive at or above the amount of per-pupil funding levels from one fiscal year to the next.
Madaleno added that the two-year budget process might start on a micro level, as opposed to the entire operating budget.
“Maybe we pick an alignment of departments and pick a two-year cycle,” he said.
For now, Madaleno said the council will still make an annual appropriation for the budget, “but we will be having a conversation around the rules of how we handle the annual budget cycle,” he said.
Montgomery County Council President Nancy Navarro said she supports the two-year cycle, but it will take time to make the transition.
“This is a big deal. This is not something we’re going to be able to do in a couple of months,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org