2016 | Schools

At Budget Forum, Leggett Explains Political Difficulties of Raising Taxes to Increase Schools Budget

Despite support for a property tax increase at forum, county executive says he must weigh potential negative reaction from others

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Ike Leggett (file photo)

Aaron Kraut

Almost a year after first suggesting a property tax hike to plug budget gaps, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett on Monday received encouragement for the idea from a vocal group of parents and schools advocates at a budget forum in Bethesda.

Rather than celebrate the apparent support, Leggett used the opportunity to point out what he framed as the political obstacles to making a property tax increase happen.

“I understand the emotions that people have about, ‘Let’s go out and do this,’” said Leggett, referring to parents and PTA members who urged him to increase funding for schools, even if it meant a tax increase. “You want to win what I consider the war, not the battle.”

The third-term county executive pointed to his former law school student Rushern Baker, the Prince George’s County executive who last year made an unsuccessful bid to raise the county’s property tax rate to increase funding for its school system.

Leggett said it could be difficult to get all nine members of the Montgomery County Council to approve a property tax increase, as is required by virtue of a 2008 referendum brought by anti-tax activist Robin Ficker.

And he said any effort to raise property taxes, even with unanimous support from the council, could inspire ballot questions such as the so-called Ficker Amendment that would further hamstring the county’s ability to raise taxes.

“So I have to be careful about how I approach this, because I don’t want to win a short battle and lose the war whereby we are crippled not just for the short term, but in perpetuity because we cannot raise taxes,” Leggett said.

Interim Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Larry Bowers has asked Leggett and the County Council for a $2.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that would be a $134.9 million increase from the current MCPS budget.

While presenting his request in December, Bowers said even that proposed increase wouldn’t allow the school system to reduce class sizes, and funding the system at the minimum required by the state’s maintenance of effort law would actually be a “disinvestment in education.”

On Monday, Leggett said he agrees that the school system, growing by more than 2,000 students a year, can’t reach its goals with just the maintenance of effort minimum.

But he also said tax revenue lost because of the Supreme Court decision in the Wynne case, lagging income tax distributions from the state and the possibility of losing up to $30 million of profit from the county’s Department of Liquor Control mean other services might have to sustain cuts.

“It’s nice to have libraries. They’re all great,” a parent from Bethesda advocating for increased education funding told Leggett. “But it’s because of the schools that we moved here and it’s because of the schools that people continue to move here.”

“Two things you have to keep in mind here. One of which is that everybody doesn’t feel the same way you do,” Leggett told the parent. “That’s one. Secondly, we have to get all nine members of the County Council [to support a tax increase], so I have to present something that is reasonable, that they are prepared to accept.”

Council member Marc Elrich, who Leggett invited to speak toward the end of the forum, said he’d vote for a property tax increase but that getting all nine council members to support it is “virtually impossible.”

He encouraged residents instead to get a referendum on the ballot to do away with the requirement for unanimous approval.

“We ought to have an honest debate and if people don’t like us because we raised taxes, then they can elect us out of office,” Elrich said.

Paul Geller, vice president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, told Leggett his organization is prepared to advocate for a property tax increase so the county can move toward reducing class sizes, adding more counselors in schools and making other additions to the education budget, which takes up roughly half of the county’s $5 billion annual budget.

“Our teachers are reaching the tipping point. They tell me unequivocally. We have kindergarten classes with 28 students, we have first-grade classes with 30 students,” Geller said. “We’ll help you get all nine [council members] if you do this. I pledge to you we will make this happen.”

Leggett is set to send his recommended budget to the County Council on March 15. He’ll host three more budget forums, including next week in Silver Spring.