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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Montgomery County's New Budget

Dear Supporters,

This morning, the County Council unanimously passed a new budget for the next fiscal year. As I cast my vote, I believe the Council has met its responsibility of balancing our residents’ priorities and keeping the government on a sustainable path.

Here is information that I think you might find useful.

Responsible Spending

The $4.4 billion total budget increased 2.2% from last year, but is still below the level of two years ago (FY 10). With workforce reductions now totaling nearly 10%, the county is becoming more efficient in order to protect priorities that really matter.

$31 Million Increase to MCPS

Tax-supported funding for our public schools will increase by $31 million, from $1.92 billion to $1.951 billion. As a result of this funding increase, class size will not increase even though enrollment is growing. As in past years, MCPS will receive more than half (56%) of all tax-supported spending for government agencies.

Council Service Restorations

The County Council made many program restorations to the Executive’s recommended budget. These were some of my priorities:

1. Libraries: The council restored $2.3 million in the public libraries’ budget. That includes $1 million for materials and a variety of staffing restorations to prevent significant cuts at theSilver Spring, Long Branch, Twinbrook andChevy Chase libraries. Friends of the Librarydeserves great credit for their advocacy.

2. Planning: The county needs a robust Planning Department in order to channel future growth towards transit, thereby enhancing our economy while protecting our quality of life and environment. The council restored $1.58 million to Planning’s budget, enabling them to fill 8 vacancies and proceed with analysis of a new county-wide rapid transit system. We also restored cuts to our parks.

3. Montgomery College: The council restored $4.6 million in proposed cuts toMontgomeryCollege’s budget to protect academic programs, student services, and more.

4. Public transportation - Kids Ride Free: This program allows students to use Metrobus and RideOn for free on weekdays between 2 PM and 7 PM. Kids Ride Free was suspended last year, but the council has now restored it, which will greatly help young people who want to participate in extra-curricular activities, earn income, and provide care to family members.

5. Health care: Working with non-profit clinics, Montgomery County provides a low cost health service for patients who are uninsured and cannot get Medicaid. We restored cuts that would have required us to turn patients away for the first time.

Restructuring Employee Benefits

The county is proud to provide its employees with health and pension benefits that exceed those provided by many other employers. These benefits are a major reason for the county’s outstanding retention rate and its excellent service provision. But over the next five years, their cost has been projected to rise by 48% while the county’s revenues are projected to rise just 2% annually. In order to preserve these benefits, we had to begin to restructure them. This was a tough decision, but it was superior to recurring layoffs, service cuts and tax hikes.

Fiscal Responsibility

Montgomery County’s general obligation bonds are rated AAA, which enables the county to borrow at some of the lowest interest rates in the nation, freeing up tax dollars for education, libraries, and so forth. But that privilege comes with the responsibility of demonstrating that the county is committed to prudent financial management. The council did just that by increasing its reserve contributions, saving money for future retiree health costs, creating a dedicated fund for snow removal and controlling its benefit costs. Nationwide, governments have failed to face up to their fiscal reality. California, Illinois, Michigan and many other states are paying the price for years of mismanagement. Nassau County, New York has been taken over by its state government. Even the federal government’s bond rating is apparently threatened. None of this is going to happen in Montgomery County.

There is no question that this was a difficult budget year. Reasonable people can disagree on some of the council’s budget actions. But I believe that our residents should feel confident that they have a responsive and effective county government. Unlike some governments, we can tackle our big challenges.

This council has met its responsibility by protecting residents’ priorities, controlling costs and carefully managing the county’s money. And we are doing that while protecting progressive priorities like education, public safety, the environment, the safety-net and a world-class quality of life.

Please continue communicating with me and if you find this helpful, consider sharing it with other residents.

Yours Sincerely,

Hans Riemer

Council Member At-Large

P.S. I want to thank the hundreds of readers who responded to my last email about our budget challenge with their personal stories, insights and priorities. I took what you said to heart as I worked through the budget process. Thank you.