2022 | Government

Elrich unveils $5.1 billion capital budget focusing on education, climate change, racial equity

Proposal has 17.2% increase from the last capital budget, approved two years ago

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Photo by Dave Asche

This story was updated at 4:55 p.m. Jan. 18, 2022, to include comments from the Montgomery County Council President.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has proposed a $5.1 billion capital budget for 2023 to 2028 — the highest in the county’s history in total funds and for Montgomery County Public Schools, officials said.

For the first time, the capital budget focuses on prioritizing projects related to climate change and racial equity, county officials said. 

Elrich allocated $1.822 billion for MCPS, 3.1% more than the $1.767 billion the district requested. The district requested 9.2% more than in the most recently approved capital budget.

Overall, the budget is up 17.2% from the last capital budget the County Council approved, which was in 2020.

Jennifer Bryant, director of the county’s Office of Budget and Management, said in an interview that much of the capital budget is meant to support the county’s Climate Action Plan unveiled last year and racial equity laws passed in recent years. 

“We wanted to make sure that we were viewing the capital budget in those terms, to guide us closer to achieving those goals,” Bryant said.

Some of those aims are through investments to the county’s public transportation network.

Elrich’s proposed budget includes:

  • $408 million for bus rapid transit planning, for new routes along major corridors in the county
  • $268 million for pedestrian and bicycle transportation facilities
  • $152 million to convert Ride On buses to a zero-emission fleet

He budgeted $327.1 million for Montgomery College, $500,000 of which is for planning a potential new campus in East County. That was below the college’s request of $347.1 million, but still a 15.1% increase from the previously approved capital budget for the college. 

Elrich said in an interview that the budget addresses climate issues “in a significant way” and school funding is also notable, in conjunction with higher levels of state funding through the Build to Learn Act and other mechanisms. 

“[MCPS] for a long time had some pretty serious unmet needs,” Elrich said. “If we did what we normally did, we would not have funded some of these projects. We may extend the timeline a little, but I think we guarantee that some of this work is going to actually get done.”

The money will help leverage state funds to pay for construction projects at Burnt Mills, Stonegate, Southlake, and Woodlin elementary schools, along with another elementary school in Clarksburg. It also would pay for the construction of a permanent Early Childhood Center at the Watkins Mill High School site.

Mary Beck, the county’s capital budget manager, said some of the overall increases in the capital budget were because estimates for recordation and impact taxes were “conservative” in last year’s operating budget.

But the Office of Budget and Management and county’s Department of Finance say this year’s capital budget reflects long-term revenue trends, not short-term temporary gains due to the pandemic.

“We didn’t want one-time little positive blips to skew our projections and I think [the county staff] definitely put time and effort into making sure that those kinds of trends, those little oddities, were not … making estimates too optimistic,” Beck said. 

Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno said the state’s Board of Revenue Estimates this past fall illustrated two important points. The board adjusted its projections, and by late 2021, estimates that the state has a $6 billion surplus

Madaleno said that, according to the board, many Marylanders, like other Americans, have saved considerable money during the pandemic, which could lead to purchases ranging from big items like real estate and cars to smaller ones like clothes, restaurant meals and other service industries.

A more long-term impact is the “maturation of the millennial generation,” Madaleno said. 

“You’ve got … this enormous wave of people hitting 40 [years old], and they’ve gone from being junior associates to partners at their firms downtown,” he said. “And it’s that wave of people that will be powering income growth and real estate purchases in our county, and around the region, and around the state for the foreseeable future.”   

Madaleno said older generations are getting pushed out by this younger generation, who are hitting their prime income years and are a larger population overall.

Beck said the capital budget reflects more money coming from the state and federal government. For instance, she said that more than $200 million for bus rapid transit projects is coming from federal funds and about $170 million more from the state.

“Without those monies, we would not be having these same conversations,” Beck said.

Some projects included in the budget include:

  • More than $394 million in funding for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects along Md. 355 and Md. 586 (Veirs Mill Road). This includes state and federal funding to support design, land acquisition and construction
  • $40 million to buy electric buses to transition Ride On buses to zero emissions by 2025
  • $171 million for stormwater management and maintenance and the rehabilitation of waterways
  • $176 million for county maintenance projects in county, Montgomery College and MCPS buildings to make them more energy efficient
  • $433 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects, including: a Sandy Spring Bikeway project; a Tuckerman Lane Sidewalks project to improve safety around Herbert Hoover Middle School and Winston Churchill High School; pedestrian and bicycle improvements along U.S. 29 to improve access to FLASH transit stations
  • $347.1 million for Montgomery College, for projects ranging from improving libraries at campuses to building a Takoma Park/Silver Spring Math & Science Center. The budget has $500,000 for initial planning for a new campus in East County
  • $2.093 billion for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. That money would, among other things, replace 37 miles of bare cast-iron, pre-1965 water main lines and 26 miles of mainline and lateral sewer lines of less than 15 inches in diameter

The county charter requires the county executive to submit an operating budget each year to the County Council by March 15, but a capital budget is only introduced every two years, in even-numbered years. The deadline for the capital budget is Jan. 15.

According to the county charter’s “rules of interpretation” section, any deadline for a resolution or action for a person can be delayed if the deadline falls on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday. That allowed Elrich to introduce the capital budget on Jan. 18.

County Council President Gabe Albornoz said on Monday he had not yet seen a copy of the capital budget, but expected it by Tuesday afternoon, per the county charter timeline.

In a prepared statement later Tuesday, he said the budget proposal is a “good starting point.”

“We will work judiciously to balance strategic capital investment across the county and the need for projects such as schools, fire and police stations, roads, libraries, recreation centers and facility improvements, while also scrutinizing the financial pressures facing our taxpayers,” Albornoz said. 

The County Council will review the capital budget, both as a full body and in individual committees. Per the charter, it can add to or decrease from any budget item, and has until June 1 to pass some version of the budget.

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