County Council Mulls Budget Projections

Riemer warns financial challenges looming over next five years

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The possibility of a $200 million budget shortfall in 2024 may not have been considered as a doomsday scenario by members of the Montgomery County Council at their meeting Thursday, but it could mean that officials will be facing some tough spending decisions going forward.

“This is going to be a challenging few years … we are heading into some challenging discussions,” council President Hans Riemer warned.

Riemer was reacting to a presentation from county legislative analysts Craig Howard and Aron Trombka, who reported on compensation cost trends over the last five years. The county, they explained, was able to avoid a budget shortfall between 2014 and 2019 largely due to two factors—a sharp drop in retirement costs and additional revenue resulting from council’s vote to increase property taxes by nearly 9 percent in 2016. The county’s budget for the current fiscal year is $5.6 billion.

“Seems like we have a story that is sort of good news and bad news,” Riemer said. “We’ve kept things in bounds over the last number of years, but there are concerns about the next couple of years.”

Council member Marc Elrich, who takes office Dec. 3 as the next county executive, reiterated his campaign pledge to cut costs in government in his new role.

“We’re gonna have some complex decisions we’ll have to make,” he said.

Elrich praised the council members who were serving during the 2008 Great Recession for showing “remarkable restraint” during budget discussions, and said the same lesson should be taken to heart by the four new council members who will be sworn in Dec. 3.

“I think it’s important for those of you staying on the council to bring that lesson to the incoming council members. I tried to be really [fiscally] conservative about what I said during the campaign because I knew there wasn’t going to be any magical money,” he said.

Council Vice President Nancy Navarro said she found the presentation informative, but said the discussion about upcoming challenges was somewhat premature. Navarro is expected to become the next council president. The council typically votes to name the next council president at the first meeting of the new council session, which is scheduled for Dec. 4.

“I was a little puzzled by it, because we have new council members and a new county executive coming in,” she said.

Council member Craig Rice, who chairs the education committee, said he has had discussions with Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith about the county’s budget. Rice said he is worried about what the county’s education spending needs will be once the state’s education funding formulas are adjusted based on anticipated recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission. The commission is expected to release its recommendations by the end of the year.

“No one’s talking about going back on promises, but we are talking about restructuring the way we go forward. The way we’ve been doing things isn’t sustainable going forward,” Rice said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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