Bitter Brew in Montgomery

March 17, 1991

Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter was accurate when he described release of his $1.6 billion budget as "a day when we make everybody mad." His plan, shaped by a wilting local economy and yawning gap in projected revenue, is one of the harshest budgets to hit Montgomery.

Virtually no corner of government has escaped the fiscal ax. A round of cuts totaling $102 million would vastly curtail government services, translating into larger elementary school classrooms, trimmed library hours, fewer bus routes and emergency shelters and reduced psychiatric treatment for youthful offenders.

County employees and teachers would lose $64 million in pay raises; another 545 positions would be frozen or withdrawn from the public payroll. The revenue side of the equation calls for raising $88 million in new taxes on a diverse raft of items ranging from new construction to telephone usage and hotel and motel stays. A plan to raise the local piggyback income tax, though, stands little chance in Annapolis.

Mr. Potter not only has an obligation to bring county spending in line, but to do so in such a way that Montgomery's basic services and its triple-A bond rating are preserved. It is pointless to argue, as some groups continue to do, that pay raises are justified in the face of the mammoth cuts needed to put Montgomery's financial house in order. It is equally unrealistic to think that its financial problems can be solved without some sort of tax increase.

The wearisome exhortations of virtually every group to pass the buck of budget cuts and tax increases to the next guy becomes increasingly meaningless in light of a fiscal situation that grows steadily worse.

Mr. Potter's proposed budget is where the hand-wringing about revenue shortfalls takes on the reality of cuts in paychecks and higher tax bills. It will be difficult, even painful to swallow for taxpayers and county employees alike. Nonetheless, it represents a reasonable economic road map to lead the county through tough times.

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