I hope you thoroughly enjoyed the long Memorial Day Weekend, notwithstanding the heat. But, today is the kind of glorious day that late May and early June are supposed to be all about. Enjoy.
As you may know, last week the Council passed the Fiscal Year 2012 Operating Budget, which begins July 1. This budget was - no doubt - one of the most difficult any Council has had to grapple with. There will definitely be people in our community that will be disappointed that certain services will be reduced as a result of the budget we approved. And I understand that disappointment.
This is the third year most of our County agencies and departments will be asked to do more with less, the third year our residents may notice reduced services -- whether it be at our libraries, our recreation centers, or our parks department. And it is the third year that our public employees will be asked to continue to work hard and professionally even when they have not seen a pay increase in a long time, have suffered furloughs, and are now being asked to assume more of the financial burdens associated with the cost of health care and pensions. That's a lot to ask from our employees -- who represent 80-90 percent of our budget outlays -- but we are fortunate: our County is blessed to have employees who take great pride in their work, who are great public servants, and who work hard every day to make Montgomery County a great place to live -- even in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
Our overriding goal in this budget, and the reason we took such strong measures across the board, was to put our County on a sustainable fiscal path going forward. We simply had to hit the reset button. While we do expect our economy to rebound, and we are blessed to have one of the best economies in the entire nation, we also believe that we should assume that lower economic growth is the "new normal." That is why we needed to make "structural" reforms, modifications to pensions and health care that will produce tens of millions of dollars in savings annually. And that is why we needed to modestly alter our future Maintenance of Effort obligation for our schools that had required us to repeatedly ask for waivers from this well-intentioned but poorly-implemented state law, a change that will also produce comparable savings over time.
This is not a budget to celebrate, that's for sure. But my colleagues and I do believe we did right by you, our residents.
As is normally true, our final actions paralleled the recommendations of the County Executive in many cases. There were some notable differences however, and below I highlight a selected number of services, including a few where we either restored dollars that had been proposed to be cut or put in more dollars into programs we believe were worthy of such support in this difficult economy.
I believe the quality of our public schools directly contributes to our overall quality of life in Montgomery County - and that is why Montgomery County Public Schools is my number one budget priority. I have heard from an overwhelming number of constituents who have told me they moved here because of MCPS's stellar reputation - a reputation that is entirely deserved and is a credit to our excellent educators and MCPS staff.
I know that some members of the school community are disappointed in the decisions this Council made with respect to the MCPS budget. As the parent of two MCPS graduates, I know first-hand what a world-class education our MCPS students receive.Given the significance of this part of our budget, I shared my thoughts with you on it at some length (as is my habit) two weeks ago. So, I will not go on and on now, but I will say that I think this Council did the best it could to achieve the necessary budget savings while minimizing potential cuts that will impact the classroom.
I also think it is worth noting that the total tax-supported budget for MCPS is actually a $31 million increase over FY11. This in a year when the budgets for other County departments and agencies are being further cut from their already significantly reduced levels. MCPS has benefited from an influx of State Aid this year that our tremendous Montgomery County Delegation helped secure. You should know that this Council always has and will continue to appropriate all state aid for education to MCPS. This State Aid will protect MCPS from having to sustain the kind of reductions other departments and agencies are facing.
I want you to know that it is with the most careful consideration that I work through these decisions. I understand that some of you still may be disappointed - but I do believe that a total budget that represents a $31 million increase over last year and that minimizes impacts on the classroom is a budget that fulfills our obligation to our MCPS students and one that preserves our world-class school system.
Besides education, I know that public safety is a primary concern in our community - and in fact, the public safety budget comprises 40.4% of our total County Government budget. I believe my colleagues on the Public Safety committee and I made appropriate restorations to the County Executive's recommended budget that reflect this concern in a way that balances the need to make budget reductions while providing our public safety personnel with the resources they require.
One such restoration I felt strongly about was the need to have our Bethesda Police Station open 24 hours a day.The County Executive had recommended that it be closed to the public over night in order to achieve savings, and I am pleased that my colleagues supported my inclination that it is best left open during overnight hours.We also restored funding for a Fire Recruit Class that is badly needed to address retirement and other staffing challenges.I believe having this class in place will go a long way toward staving off personnel deficits and overtime costs.
Finally, we heard from many members of our school community that they consider School Resource Officers to be tremendously important.I am pleased that the Council restored, to be funded out of the Police budget, six of these positions - one for each police district - so that their work of contributing to a safe environment for our students will continue.
There is perhaps nothing that gets under one's skin like sitting in traffic. That is why it is crucial that we protect and expand our transit services in the County and we did just that in this year's budget. As Chair of the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment Committee (T & E Committee), I was pleased that the County Executive had not recommended any cuts to the County's Ride-On routes for FY12. We were able to maintain all routes while at the same time, plan for a future countywide Bus Rapid Transit System that will provide new, attractive transit options for the County. Sixteen routes throughout the County will be studied in the coming year taking us one giant leap closer to making Rapid Transit a reality in the region.
But not everyone is able to utilize mass transit; many of us rely on the extensive road networks in the County. Our road infrastructure is in bad shape given the significant storms over the past few winters. To address the enormous need for repairs and resurfacing, the Council increased funds by 600% compared to FY11 levels. This will help our Department of Transportation repair potholes and continue their highly sought-out neighborhood road resurfacing program.
Other good news in the transportation budget included funding to restore the Kids Ride Free program, money to continue the County's efforts to make pedestrian crossings safer by extending the walk signal time, and additional funding for tree maintenance and tree removal. In a difficult budget year, I was grateful to my colleagues on the T&E Committee, Councilmembers Floreen and Riemer) for their assistance in protecting these essential services.
I remain a strong supporter of Montgomery County Public Libraries (I had the privilege of serving as Lead for Libraries on the Council during my first year), and deeply regret that it has had to endure devastating budget reductions over the last several years. I do believe that libraries are citadels of our civic life - part of what makes a community a community. That is why I was particularly alarmed by the County Executive's proposal to further reduce staffing and services at Chevy Chase Library and other "neighborhood branches."
For that reason, I am quite pleased that my colleagues and I were able to add back in just over $2 million to the library budget. Of that $2 million, $460,000 will go toward restoring information staff at these neighborhood branches - and another $1 million will be used to purchase materials. I believe this funding, along with the library system's talented and dedicated staff, will go a long way in preserving the County's library system that we so treasure.
Park & Planning
There is perhaps no agency more important to the economic development and shaping of our County than the Planning Department. It is in the able hands of the planning staff that master plans are drafted, forest conservation plans reviewed, and new projects are evaluated. Without the Planning Department, economic activity in the County would come to a standstill and we could not plan for exciting new developments like the recently approved White Flint Sector Plan.
In the past few years, the Planning Department's budget has been hit harder than almost any other department or agency in the County - suffering a 40 % reduction in staff over previous levels, yet charged with the same amount of work. Accordingly, the Council restored approximately $1.5 million above the County Executive's recommended FY12 Budget which will allow the Planning Department to help keep our economy moving out of the recession by being able to conduct timely review of development projects, maintain their current work program of master plans and neighborhood studies, and get to work on amending our Master Plan of Highways to plan for a countywide Bus Rapid Transit System.
Our vast system of beautiful parks is part of what makes Montgomery County so special. Like all other County departments and agencies, the Department of Parks has been charged with "doing more with less," even as the commission acquires more park land and open space. The Council restored some priorities identified by Parks staff, including park maintenance, seasonal staffing, and Park Police patrol of the Capital Crescent Trail from 2AM - 6AM. I am confident that with the good work of the Department of Parks staff, our unique parks system will continue to be a valued gem that is truly special to Montgomery County.
This year's budget will fund the expansion of our Department of Environmental Protection's stormwater management, environmental site design and water quality protection programs.These actions should have a direct positive impact on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
In addition, the County's new bag fee legislation will go into effect in January and is expected to raise $200,000 that will be deposited in the Water Quality Protection Fund.
I have been seriously concerned that the County was neglecting the protection of the tree canopy found on the County's right of way and thus is the responsibility of the County to protect and maintain.Budget shortfalls in prior years necessitated significant cuts to this program.Given the need to protect the lives and limbs of our citizens and to do our part to eliminate tree debris from disrupting utility performance it became prudent to move funds from the Street Tree Protection fund that engages block preventative pruning and use some of these monies for tree removal.The County's back log of requests for removal of dead trees from the County's right of way had reached 1300 and counting.$350,000 was shifted from the block pruning budget and an additional $350,000 was added to insure that dead and dangerous trees can be dealt with more quickly.
In order to continue a number of important efforts by the WSSC not the least of which is an aggressive large diameter water main inspection, repair and acoustic fiber optic monitoring program Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's charges were increased by 8.5 percent.This will provided full funding for WSSC's FY12 operating budget and full funding for WSSC's FY12-17 Capital Improvements Program.
Health and Human Services
Safety net services protect our County's most vulnerable residents from the worst effects of the economic downturn. These are services I find to be among the most critical items in any year's budget, and this year was no different.
I am pleased that this year's HHS budget funds contracts that provide for utility assistance and eviction prevention, so that residents most impacted by the Great Recession do not become homeless. The Council also restored funds for 75,000 primary care visits through our Montgomery Cares program, so that access to basic health services remains available to our low-income, uninsured residents. And we restored funds for community-based pre-kindergarten programs.
District 1 CIP Projects
The Council considers our Capital Improvements Program (CIP) biannually. And while this is a CIP "off-year", no news is good news, as they say, for District 1 schools. All of our District 1 school CIP projects remain funded and on schedule. To take a look at where your school's project stands, click here.
I am pleased that these projects remain on schedule - these are the classroom additions, renovations, and modernizations that so many of our schools so desperately need to help ensure our students have the learning environment they deserve. In the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Cluster, a "solutions project" at the middle school level was approved to be added so that the cluster is not subject to a building moratorium under the public school adequacy test. A more specific PDF (project description form) for this project is expected to be completed for the FY13-18 CIP once MCPS concludes its feasibility study for the new middle school.
The future North Bethesda Recreation Center is also in the "good news" category. The County Executive, as an off-year CIP amendment, had proposed completely closing out the project. I found this to be unacceptable for a community that has already waited too long for a project called for in their 1992 Master Plan. For that reason, I wrote to my colleagues on the PHED Committee and asked that they reject the County Executive's proposal, and instead ask him to include funding in future years so that the project essentially remains alive. I am pleased that the Council approved an amended PDF for the project that does just that - and I remain confident that, even though it has been a long wait, the residents of North Bethesda will eventually have an alternative to driving to Potomac or Chevy Chase.
Recommendations of the Organizational Reform Commission
I want to thank the members of the Organizational Reform Commission (ORC) for their work over the past year. I believe their efforts to identify ways in which the County can function differently will put us on a more sustainable path and will have a lasting impact on the way we operate.
This Council has embraced many of the ORC's recommendations, with respect to arbitration, Maintenance of Effort, and liquor control. One recommendation that we have embraced fully - moving the County's technology systems to "cloud computing" - will save $31 million. Some recommendations the Council did not accept totally, but accepted in part in order to still achieve some savings. There are certainly issues where the Council disagreed with the ORC - in considering 28 recommendations there were bound to be. But even in areas where the Council arrived at a different point of view, the matters still received robust debate and honest consideration. That in itself is valuable. I believe their work was a critical part of our budget decisionmaking and I am most grateful for having had the benefit of it.