Budget Triage in Montgomery

May 19, 1991

After much hand-wringing and soul-searching, the Montgomery County Council last week signed off on a $1.58 billion 1992 spending blueprint that is both responsive and responsible. A workable, if painful, blend of tax hikes and judicious spending cuts has produced a balanced budget that unduly penalizes neither taxpayers nor government employees.

This was made possible by much cutting and pasting dominated by a $23.5 million tax package that will cost county households less than $50 a year. Chief among these are increased levies on energy, telephone usage and hotel and motel stays. Taxes on beverage containers will rise by a cent on containers under 16 ounces and by 2 cents on larger ones.

Conspicuously absent from the fiscal gyrations was a lifting of the voter-imposed cap on property taxes. Though some on the county council favored bypassing the cap, support fell far short of the seven votes required on the nine-member council to pull it off.

Though this will undoubtedly delight the "no new taxes" crowd, the council will likely face fallout from other factions that fared less well. The new spending plan calls for deep and painful cuts in the school board's budget, cuts that critics say will hurt, significantly and permanently, the stature of a system widely regarded as one of the best in the country. It also nixes cost of living increases for teachers and county employees.

Though not without pain, Montgomery's spending plan represents a masterful job of budgetary triage in a county with the region's worst fiscal crisis -- a projected deficit of $185 million -- amid a decidedly anti-property-tax mood among homeowners. The budget "is responsive to the many needs in our community, while still responsible in light of the fiscal crisis we are currently facing," said Council President Isiah Leggett.

He's right. Montgomery's financial burdens are extreme and continuing. School spending, library hours and pay raises have all suffered. Yet for the most part, priorities have been met and essentials untouched. One can hardly expect more in a budget conceived during hard times.

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