Monday, May 5, 2008

My Call for a 2% Cut in Spending Across the Board

Today I challenged all departments and agencies to provide us with budgets that reduce spending to 2% below the County Executive’s proposed budget by noon on Friday. A 2% reduction would save about $76 million and would reduce the County Executive’s proposed property tax increase by a little more than half.

As far as I am concerned, the proposed tax burden is untenable, particularly for the average homeowner facing increased fuel, food and health care costs. I am afraid that this budget is way out of line. In today’s economy, it is unaffordable.

The County Executive’s proposed tax-supported budget is about $3.77 billion, a 4.2% increase over last year’s approved budget. It is funded in part by an average 14.7% increase in property taxes that can be as high as 20% for commercial properties and 40% for some rental properties, according to Council staff analysis.

Mr. Leggett’s budget is currently about $138 million over the Charter Limit, which is defined as last year’s budget increased by the inflation rate of 3.6%. My proposal also would exceed the limit but by the lesser amount of $62 million, which could be partially resolved by taking the reserve down to 5.5% to save another $20 million; stretching the Other Post Employment Benefit Payments to 10 years for $11 million; and passing the carbon surtax for $11 million.

I appreciate the hard work all of the committees did in analyzing the agency budgets before them. I know my colleagues have put their hearts into trying to limit spending. But I don’t believe we have gone far enough. Our neighbors in Fairfax County, the District of Columbia, and Prince George’s County are looking at budget increases of no more than 1.3%. We in Montgomery County need to join the rest of the region in looking toward a more sustainable budget.


Anonymous said...

Since cuts impact different services in dramatically different ways, why are you pushing for a 2% across the board cut regardless of how it would impact residents? If cuts are necessary, it would make more sense to make substantial cuts to programs with inefficiencies, waste, giveaways to private concerns, or less easily impacted programs, while preserving more vital, effective programs. While I am just a resident, not a budget specialist, it seems like cutting 2% off of our fire department's budget would hurt residents far more than 5% of county executive/department directors' salaries. Let's cut the fat, not the muscle.

Sara D

Councilmember Nancy Floreen said...

This is a fair point, and I wish that we had the ability to truly evaluate the effectiveness of every existing program on our own. However, the challenge is that we do have oversight responsibility, but county staff technically report to the County Executive, not us. We can ask questions, demand information and data, but the truth be told, we are not equipped to make good management decisions. This is my sixth year reviewing county budgets, and the more I do it, the more I believe that the better approach is to get the professional agency recommendations on the best way to cut, not to make the determination on our own. Of course it involves our weighing of competing priorities in the end. This is what we did with the Park and Planning budget, and I think we ended up with a more professionally based budget than we otherwise would have. Stepping back from all of this for a moment, however, as I look at what we have all tried in good faith to do, I do not believe that it was an aggressive enough approach to reducing taxpayer burden. If agencies lay out what a two percent cut would look like, then we, and the public, would have a better look at the tradeoffs.

The Athens Project said...

An interesting choice of words:

"we do have oversight responsibility, but county staff technically report to the County Executive, not us. We can ask questions, demand information and data, but the truth be told, we are not equipped to make good management decisions."

What tools do the professionals receive from the County Executive that you lack?

Given the outcry against the $60,000 Executive bathroom, one wonders whether professionals aren't guarding some of the favored waste that causes taxpayers such concern. After all, if favored projects get cut by the hired guns, they may not get repeat business.

Judging from the performance of the board of education (the "List of Unrecommended Cuts" they submit never fails to read like a horror novel), I suspect asking departments for proposals to cut 2% of their own budgets inevitably reaps a list of horrible ideas designed to make council members quail at the idea of a 3% cut.

The system of perverse incentives weighing upon all the actors in this exercise favors those that attempt to achieve your goal with the least faith. The logical (if contemptible) goal would be to make a 2% cut sound as painful as possible so stiffer cuts of other agencies may spare them future pain. To do otherwise would place thoughts in supervisors' minds that their department is a ripe target for more scrutiny and less funding.

Given numbers to work with like those offered in the budget summaries previously posted, how can one evaluate the sincerity or efficacy of the staff and professionals being relied on? How can the public? How can the tax gadflies that get the ill-advised charter amendments on the ballot every two years fathom the wisdom of the current rules without good information to work with? Information that even council members must demand and cajole out of skittish department heads?

Even if staff and professionals are the best equipped to produce minimal disruption of services despite budget cuts doesn't mean they do the best they can. To provide maximum benefits and minimum cost would require an incentives system that does not penalize aggressive budgetary self-restraint.

Producing such a system would be important work that would bestow tremendous benefits to our county for the foreseeable future.