Category Archives: budget

MoCo’s Skyrocketing Debt

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last fall, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed cutting the volume of new general obligation bonds issued by the county in future years and the County Council concurred unanimously.  Advocates for school construction fretted over the move as the county’s needs in that area, as well as in transportation investment, are enormous.  But Leggett and the council had a point.  The county’s debt has skyrocketed in the past twenty years and especially in the last decade.  It now presents a substantial challenge to the county’s fiscal well-being that the next generation of county leaders will have to deal with.

The county government does not use debt to finance its operating budget, but it does use debt to finance its capital budget, known as the Capital Improvements Program (CIP).  The CIP is a six-year budget that is fully renewed every two years and is adjusted in off years.  The Executive’s latest recommended CIP currently totals $4.5 billion, of which $1.8 billion is recommended for school construction.  The CIP has many funding streams for its projects, but the single largest one is debt.  As of June 30, 2017, the county had $4.1 billion of outstanding primary government debt, of which the largest category is general obligation (GO) bonds, which accounts for $2.7 billion.  GO bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of county government.  The fact that the county’s GO bonds have had a AAA rating assigned to them by the nation’s three largest credit agencies for many years is a substantial source of interest savings to the county.  Other major categories of debt are short-term bond anticipation notes ($500 million outstanding), taxable Build America Bonds created during the recession ($308 million) and revenue bonds which are backed by dedicated revenue streams ($222 million).  All of this is separate from the substantial liabilities the county has for pension funding and retiree health benefits.

There are two salient facts about the county’s debt.  First, it has been growing rapidly.  And second, it is paid off through debt service that is part of the county’s operating budget.  These debt service payments MUST be paid and they compete with other spending priorities.  Along with total debt, debt service has also been growing rapidly.

The chart below shows growth in total outstanding primary government debt and in GO bonds over the last twenty years.  While growth has occurred throughout the entire period, it has accelerated since the onset of the Great Recession.  From 1998 through 2008, GO bond debt grew by an average of 2.9% per year, about equal to growth in the Washington-Baltimore CPI (3.0% per year).  Total debt grew by an average of 5.2% annually over that period.  From 2009 through 2017, GO bond debt grew by an annual average of 8.1%.  Total debt grew by 8.4% annually.  The average rate of inflation in the Washington-Baltimore CPI was 1.5%.  Over the last eight years, the county’s debt has been growing by more than 5 times the rate of inflation.

Relative to the size of the population, the debt has been rising too.  When we compared the county’s total debt levels to population estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, we found that total debt per capita has grown from $1,370 in 1997 to $3,768 in 2017.

As for debt service, it has risen from $140 million in FY97 to $408 million in FY18.  If debt service was a county agency, it would be the largest agency in county government other than MCPS.  Debt service payments are mandatory and cannot be cut like most other categories of spending during recessions.  The pit of the Great Recession came in FY11, when debt service was $258 million and the county slashed services, doubled the energy tax and furloughed its workforce.  Now that debt service exceeds $400 million a year, it will present a much greater impediment to the maintenance of county services when the next recession comes.

Let’s remember that debt is not an inherently bad thing.  It is the primary vehicle by which the county pays for core government functions like school construction and transportation projects.  The county’s needs in those areas are absolutely undeniable.  Also, construction costs were moderated during the recession, so the county was able to take advantage of that to build relatively cheaply in those years.  But over the long term, if you are going to have rapidly growing debt, you need to have a rapidly growing economy to pay for it.  And MoCo does not have that – instead, it has had weak growth in employment and incomes in recent years.  It saw 57 new business filings in 2015 and 19 new filings a year later.  It passed a 9% property tax hike and a year and a half later suffered a $120 million budget shortfall.

This is evidence yet again that an economic revival has to be a huge priority for the next generation of county elected officials.  Without it, debt service will consume larger and larger chunks of the budget and eventually lead to service cuts and/or tax hikes.  As for those who oppose economic growth or have worked to undermine it, the debt situation makes this clear: you cannot oppose growth and favor expanding school construction and transportation investment.  The economy and the credit markets won’t allow elected leaders to have it both ways.

Bear that in mind as we head to Election Day.


Team MoCo

By Adam Pagnucco.

Yesterday, we wrote about the recent history of MCPS and it was not a pretty picture.  The recession, new state laws, political conflict and the erosion of a once-strong consensus around the public schools resulted in MCPS getting lower funding increases than most of the rest of county government, especially when measured in local dollars.  But the good news here is that change is coming to MoCo with the sheer number of open seats in county elected offices.  There is a better way forward.  And today, we will plot out what that way can be.

First, let’s steal a page from the playbook of former MCPS Head Coach Jerry Weast and recognize this: nothing brings folks together like a common enemy.  The Axis powers brought together America and the Soviet Union.  The New England Patriots brought together nearly all NFL fans without ties to the Greater Boston area to root for the not-quite-as-bad Philadelphia Eagles.  And Donald Trump may just bring together the feuding members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who hate Trump more than they dislike each other.

The various factions of MoCo’s education family do not have a common enemy, but they do have a common challenge: dealing with Annapolis.  The state capital poses three problems for MoCo’s public schools.  First, the state has a Governor who has cut education funding before (especially state aid for MoCo) and is doing it again.  Second, while the state has improved recently, it still short changes MoCo on school construction money and the county cannot keep up with capacity needs on its own.  And third, a consultant advising the state’s Kirwan Commission on education reform has recommended massive cuts to state operating aid to MCPS.  If all three of these things proceed in a baleful direction, MCPS’s funding issues will get a lot worse and the entire county – parents, students, school employees, residents and businesses – will pay a steep price.

When you get past the details of MCPS’s recent money problems, one root cause stands out: political division in the wake of Weast’s departure.  The County Executive, the County Council, MCPS leadership, the MCPS unions and the PTAs all have different priorities and different views on MCPS funding, and they often go in different directions.  That has to stop or things won’t change.  We need a Team MoCo.  And here’s what that looks like.

County Council

The council has one job when it comes to the schools: funding them.  And since the schools are both a critical public policy priority as well as a big political priority for the voters, their funding situation must improve from the last eight years.  The council largely got this right in its FY18 budget, which gave MCPS a modest (roughly $20 million) increase over the state’s Maintenance of Effort requirement.  The policy of regular, modest per pupil local dollar increases that will – at the very least – keep pace with MCPS’s costs and needs should continue.

The council must not get involved in sensitive internal MCPS issues, especially in pressuring the system on its collective bargaining agreements.  Blowing up the union contracts in 2016 was a major mistake and caused a serious breach of trust.  Let MCPS management and the unions decide what the agreements look like in the context of their total budget.  If the council does not stay out of this, Team MoCo will crumble and the entire arrangement will fall apart.

Superintendent and Board of Education

If the council gives MCPS leadership the funding it needs, then MCPS leadership must reciprocate by giving the council what it needs: fiscal stability.  The state’s Maintenance of Effort (MOE) law, which was rewritten in 2012, sets each year’s local dollar per pupil funding as a base for future years.  Every time the base goes up, it becomes a new base and can only be lowered by a waiver from the State Board of Education.  This is a major concern for the council and was partially responsible for several years of per pupil cuts and freezes.  Given the immense implications of this for the county’s budget and AAA bond rating, the council is right to be wary of going too far above MOE.

Fortunately, § 5-202 (d) (9) of the state’s education law specifies that the State Board of Education shall grant an MOE waiver “in the amount that has been agreed on by the county and county board that is attributable to reductions in recurring costs.”  In other words, if the county falls into another big recession and it has to cut costs in the school system along with all the other agencies, it can get a waiver if the school board agrees.  This deal must be honored by MCPS: if the council extends its trust by funding them, MCPS must agree to reciprocate by helping to relieve the county of financial stress in dire circumstances.  Both sides must stick to this or relations will revert to the bad old years.

MCPS Unions and PTAs

MCEA and SEIU Local 500 are two of the most powerful players in county politics.  The PTAs do not endorse candidates, but they have listservs that include thousands of parents and therefore – at least in theory – have a big voice.  These organizations should function as the muscle of Team MoCo.  They will be getting regular funding increases and, in return, they should help the Team pressure Annapolis to get what is needed for the county.

MoCo Delegation

If Team MoCo gets its act together and strikes an equitable deal for local funding for the schools, the remaining challenges lie in Annapolis.  Rockville does not understand Annapolis.  It does not fully appreciate the obstacles faced by the delegation in pursuing county priorities: the perception of MoCo by the rest of the state as paved in gold; the competing priorities of other population centers in the state; the constraining effect of the legislature’s leadership; and the fiscal constraints of the state’s own tight budget.  Given those hurdles, it’s a heavy lift for the delegation to bring back Big Bacon to MoCo.  But it can be done: witness the Baltimore City delegation’s victory in getting the state to pump a billion dollars into the city’s school construction program.  The city legislators are not smarter than MoCo’s legislators (although they are more parochial).  A big reason for their win was that the entire city stuck together, from the Mayor to the City Council to the city legislators to the folks back home who wanted the money.  Team Baltimore got a billion dollars.  We need a Team MoCo to do something similar.

The role of the county leadership and its constituent groups is to set a mark for the delegation and do everything possible to help them stay organized and succeed.  This is not easy; the other jurisdictions and the presiding officers won’t just roll over for us.  Every member of Team MoCo has to tell our delegation with one unified voice, “We have your backs.  We know it’s a lift, but if you come through for us, we will celebrate you like the heroes you are.  You will never have to buy a drink for yourselves in Rockville ever again.  And if you don’t come through, you will not be served a drink in Rockville ever again!”  Good performance must be rewarded.  Bad performance must be met with accountability.

One more thing: the delegation has an ace card.  Senate President Mike Miller and Speaker Mike Busch are not going to run the General Assembly for much longer.  Successors to their thrones are making the rounds and lining up votes, however quietly.  The MoCo legislators should tell all of them that whoever gives the county the best deal on schools will lock up all their votes.  It’s huge leverage that should not be wasted, but it will only be used if it pays off in political terms.  Team MoCo’s job is to make sure it does pay off so the Big Bacon gets served.

County Executive

This is the most critical person in this entire endeavor.  Every team needs a Captain.  In MoCo, that has to be the Executive.  This individual is the county’s spokesperson and the one everybody else will inevitably look to for leadership.  The Executive must be a troubleshooter who works out periodic squabbles between the different members of the family, charts out a general course on budgets and state action and makes sure everyone gets the credit they deserve.  Most of all, the Executive must be a LEADER.  The lesson from the aftermath of Weast is that without central leadership, everything can fall apart.  If we pick the right Executive, that won’t happen and Team MoCo can succeed.

And so if everything works out, everyone wins.  The county gets its fair share from the state.  MCPS stakeholders get the funding they need.  MCPS employees get fair compensation and the resources they need to do their jobs.  The elected officials get to be heroes.  And the county as a whole will maintain its status as one of the best places to live on Planet Earth.

We can do it, folks.  Yes we can!  If you agree, ask the candidates how they intend to play on our team and keep it in mind for Election Day.  Team MoCo will only come together if the voters demand it.


Where Will the Apple Drop?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Many moons ago, when your author was young and blissfully new to the county, we wrote our very first blog post on the mighty Apple Ballot.  It was unimaginatively titled, “The 800 lb Gorilla of MoCo Politics.”  Then as now, the Apple was one of the most coveted endorsements in MoCo.  But my oh my, so much has changed.

Back in the Age of the Golden Apple, the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) was the centerpiece of a powerful political organization created by then-Superintendent Jerry Weast.  Weast was not a pro-union progressive by nature, but he understood that politics is a team sport and it was necessary to play it to get money.  So the Weast Machine included the education unions (MCEA, SEIU and the principals), the PTAs, the Washington Post editorial page and the school system’s internal Ministry of Propaganda.  (That was not its title, but you get the point!)  Weast traded real input in the MCPS budget for stakeholders in return for absolute loyalty in joint combat against the outside – especially the County Council.  Anyone who messed with the school system didn’t take on Weast alone – they had to go against the entire Machine.  Weast capitalized on his organization as well as productive relationships with County Executive Doug Duncan and County Council Education Committee Chair Mike Subin to get substantial and regular budget increases.  The whole system was greased by strong revenue growth and occasional tax hikes.

The District 18/Silver Spring version of the Apple Ballot from 2006.  This is the document that began your author’s career in blogging.

Those days are long gone.  Three major changes have occurred over the last ten years.

First, Weast jumped the shark – not once, but twice.  His first big sin was calling union leaders to his house to ask them to endorse Nancy Navarro in the 2008 Council District 4 special election.  That attracted criticism from multiple Council Members as inappropriate conduct by an appointed non-partisan administrator.  His second big sin was threatening to sue the county over a budget disagreement two years later.  These kinds of behavior helped convince Weast’s adversaries that he was not merely an irritant, but an actual threat, and prompted some to brand him a Rogue Superintendent.  That set the stage for the bitter budget battles to come.

Second, the county and regional economies were greatly weakened in the wake of the Great Recession.  The chart below shows growth in county revenue (excluding intergovernmental aid) over the last twenty years.  Red bars indicate years in which major tax hikes were passed.  From FY98 through FY09, a generally prosperous economy helped county revenues grow by an annual average of 6.2%.  But from FY10 through FY18, the days of the Great Recession and beyond, county revenues grew by an annual average of 3.1%.  (That does not include the recent $120 million budget shortfall.)  There is simply not as much money to go around as there used to be.  Accordingly, revitalizing the economy should be a huge policy objective for all of the county’s employee unions and everyone else who cares about funding local government.

Third, the local money that was available was not as directed to MCPS as it once was.  There are many reasons for that: the Holy War that broke out between the County Council and the school system in Weast’s final days; dissatisfaction with changes to the state’s Maintenance of Effort law; the state’s execrable decision to shift part of the teacher pension burden down to the counties, which is costing MoCo tens of millions of dollars every year and stifling funding for other priorities; and the growth of many other needs in the county’s budget.  Council Member Nancy Floreen defended the county’s record on MCPS funding and your author offered a reply.

Whatever the reasons, MCPS has not received operating fund increases commensurate with most of the rest of the government in recent years.  The chart below shows budgetary growth by major department and agency from FY10, the peak year before the Great Recession, through FY18.  The effects of the recently approved mid-year savings plan are shown at right.  Note that the time period includes the recession itself, the recovery years afterwards and the FY17 9% property tax hike which was marketed as a boost for education.  MCPS’s total funding increased by 13% over these eight years, roughly half the 25% increase for the total county government.  Non-local funding for the schools, the huge majority of which is state aid, went up by 33%.  But local funding for the schools went up by just 6% as the county spent its own money disproportionately on other activities.  Meanwhile, MCPS’s enrollment went up by 15% during this period.

The Weast Machine has been shattered.  Its demise was due to the decline of the economy, conscious policy choices by county decision makers and, ironically, because of the school system’s own leadership as well.  The key moment came in the spring of 2016, when the County Council conditioned its offer of a substantial increase in MCPS funding on a requirement that it go to reducing class size and not to increasing teacher compensation.  The Weast Machine would have resisted that condition, but the system’s leadership agreed to it.  And so the council voted unanimously to instruct the school system to shift $37 million from employee compensation to class size reduction and the school system reduced teacher raises to comply.  The legacy of this moment is that there is no longer a united front between MCPS leaders and their unions – a major loss of leverage in the school system’s dealings with county electeds.  The end result was not so great for the council either as voters, displeased by the big tax hike that year and not mollified by the compensation changes, went on to overwhelmingly approve term limits.

MCEA runs a Facebook ad against the $25 million mid-year cut to MCPS.  The union flooded a town hall meeting with the County Executive to protest it but the County Council approved the cut unanimously.

MCEA will be deciding its 2018 endorsements for county office in the weeks to come.  In the contested races for County Executive, Council At-Large and Council Districts 1 and 3, the mighty Apple Ballot could play a huge role.  Where will the Apple drop?  That depends on how MCEA answers the following two questions.

What to Do With the Incumbents?

Incumbents usually win and MCEA has endorsed the majority of them, including ones who were lukewarm on their issues, in the past.  But in this case, most of the incumbent Council Members voted for multiple very tough budgets, all of them supported reducing teacher raises as a condition of approving more MCPS funding and all of them just voted for a $25 million mid-year cut to MCPS.  Can those strikes be offset by other considerations?

How to Find Someone Better?

Let’s be fair to the incumbents: the recession, the new Maintenance of Effort law and the partial shift of teacher pension funding to the counties created very hard choices.  No matter what they did, the incumbents would have offended someone.  Would the legions of challengers now vying for the Apple’s attention really have done better?  Which ones among them understand the very real and very complicated budget issues that face policy makers?  Which ones will aggressively pursue economic revival, which is necessary for financing all county services – not just MCPS – and supporting justified raises for county employees?  Which ones have the competence to deliver and the character to fight for teachers, parents and students alike?

When those questions are answered, we will know where the Apple drops.

End Note: For those who wish to study MCPS’s funding history, we reprint the following graphic from the County Executive’s recommended FY18 budget below.


Revenue Shortfall Undermines Hogan’s Claims on Jobs

By Adam Pagnucco.

In 2014, candidate Larry Hogan ran on three issues: jobs, taxes and reforming Annapolis.  From 2015 through the present, Governor Larry Hogan has based his agenda on three issues: jobs, taxes and reforming Annapolis.  It’s a smart and focused way to campaign and govern and has largely (although perhaps temporarily) neutralized Hogan’s disadvantage as a Republican in blue Maryland.  But now the state budget is suffering from a revenue shortfall.  That calls into question Hogan’s standing on perhaps his biggest issue: jobs.

Recent polls show that jobs and the economy are the second most important issue for Marylanders, trailing only public education.  Accordingly, Hogan relentlessly promotes his jobs record in the press and social media, not so subtly using it as justification for his reelection.  But if employment was really surging, state revenues should be booming.  They’re not.

One of countless Facebook posts by the Governor on jobs.

Last week, the Board of Revenue Estimates, comprised of the Comptroller, the Treasurer and the Secretary of Budget and Management, voted to reduce the state’s revenue projection for FY18 (the current fiscal year) by $73 million.  The reduction included shortfalls of $92 million in income taxes and $33 million in sales and use taxes, which were partially offset by increases of $18 million in estate taxes and $17 million in corporate income taxes.

A summary of the shortfall released by the Board of Revenue Estimates.

Given the fact that the November income tax distributions were down by 26% in Baltimore County, 29% in Montgomery County and 30% in Howard County, it’s not surprising that the state’s income tax projections would take a hit.  In those three counties, tax planning by the wealthy to take advantage of next year’s federal tax cuts was probably a factor in their shortfalls.  The fact that Maryland has the highest percentage of millionaire households of any state in the country leaves it vulnerable to these kinds of revenue swings.

But that’s not all.  The $33 million decline in projected sales and use taxes does not relate to tax planning by the rich.  That’s a similar situation to what MoCo is experiencing as half the county’s shortfall comes from taxes other than income taxes.  Hogan is dealing with the same problem as MoCo’s county elected officials: for all their claims that the economy is strong, healthy economies tend to not produce significant revenue shortfalls.  Recent employment estimates are often revised substantially soon after their release, but current year revenue declines are something that governments have to deal with in the near term.

Here’s what Comptroller Peter Franchot had to say about the state’s falling revenue projections:

The revenue projections that have been brought to this Board for approval were meticulously and carefully crafted based on what we know … and the trends we are seeing … and the data we are receiving. Once Congress approves a final version of the tax reform legislation, our experts here will work diligently to determine its impact on Marylanders’ income and our state’s fiscal future and propose revisions to our revenue estimates where appropriate.

In other words, we’re doing the best we can with the information we have. But, here’s what we do know and here’s what the numbers tell us. While we have undoubtedly made considerable progress after the crippling effects of the 2008 Recession, with an unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent and stock market trends that are headed in the right direction, the fact of the matter is that thousands of Maryland working families and small business owners who were affected the most by the economic crash nearly a decade ago haven’t fully recovered.

We continue to see that with declining sales and use tax revenue. With wages and salaries that are lackluster at best. Even those who are employed with good-paying jobs have – in more cases than not – elected to put their disposable incomes in their piggy banks instead of putting money back in our local economy. And who can blame them?

With all the uncertainty that’s being produced by Washington at an almost daily basis, coupled with the continued fiscal and economic challenges that our state and our communities face, it’s understandable why so many of our citizens remain hesitant and timid about how they spend their hard-earned incomes.

Let’s remember that Franchot has a famously cooperative relationship with Hogan.  Even so, Franchot is saying that the state’s economy has not fully recovered from the Great Recession – which is exactly what we wrote about MoCo before the revenue crash.

This is the opposite of Larry Hogan’s message that he has been great on jobs.  His opponents are sure to take notice.


Is MoCo’s Budget in Trouble?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Montgomery County’s $120 million budget shortfall has set off political fireworks this election season, including attacks from Delegate Bill Frick (D-16), who is running for Executive, and Republicans who question how taxes could be going up while revenues are going down.  County Council incumbents pooh-pooh it, insisting that the budget decline is unremarkable and the economy is strong.  County Executive spokesman Patrick Lacefield, who once predicted that any loss of the county’s $30 million in liquor profits would cause a big property tax hike, now says that the $120 million shortfall is “pretty small” at just 2.2 percent of the county’s budget.

What is going on here?  Is MoCo’s budget in trouble?

First, the incumbents are right to point out that mid-year corrections, including budget savings plans, are not uncommon.  Between FY08 and FY11, the County Council approved five mid-year cut packages ranging from $30 million to $70 million each due to the Great Recession.  In FY16, the council approved a $54 million savings plan associated with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wynne decision and disappointing income tax receipts in the prior year.  While mid-year cuts happen occasionally, it’s important to note that their history indicates that they are often – but not always – produced by looming economic problems.

So what’s causing this one?  No one is totally sure yet, but there seems to be two phenomena at work.

Declining Income Tax Payments from the Wealthy

In Maryland, the state collects income taxes on behalf of local governments and remits them in periodic distributions.  Part of MoCo’s problem originated in its November income tax distribution from the state, which includes extension filers who tend to be disproportionately very wealthy.  It’s difficult to forecast income tax payments from wealthy people because their dependence on capital gains and business income can be volatile.  The chart below from the state’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates contrasts the annual change in average federal adjusted gross income between all MoCo taxpayers (pink bars) and the top 100 MoCo taxpayers (blue line).  Income change for all taxpayers usually varies by single digits each year while income for the super-wealthy almost always varies by double digits.  This creates serious forecasting challenges for the county government since the super-wealthy have a material impact on its budget.

One relevant fact is that the November distribution may be down by 29% in MoCo but, according to the state, it is also down by 30% in Howard County and 26% in Baltimore County.  One thing these three jurisdictions have in common is that they all have substantial concentrations of very wealthy people.  That suggests that some of MoCo’s problem is not specific to the county but rather to variations in the incomes of the super rich.

Why is this happening?  One explanation lies in capital gains income.  Council analyst Jacob Sesker writes:

To a large degree, that volatility is the result of the year-to-year variations in the capital gains income of a small number of County residents. Illustrating this point, part of the projected FY18 decline in income tax revenue can be traced to a sharp drop in the capital gains of the County’s top 50 taxpayers, who realized gains in tax year 2016 that were 50% of the gains realized in tax year 2015, resulting in $21 million less in County income tax revenue (Revenue Administration Division of the Maryland Comptroller). Staff’s review of tax return data published by the Comptroller indicates that roughly 1.8% of Montgomery County returns report income of $500,000 or greater. On average, these returns explain more than half of any year-to-year increases in income tax revenue, and explain more than 100% of any year-to-year declines in income tax revenue.

Another factor could be the tax bills being considered by Congress, which contain numerous large cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations.  The super wealthy could be deferring capital gains and business pass-through income to next year when they would be subject to significantly lower rates.  If true, that would mean less income tax revenue this year but perhaps more next year when the deferred income is reported.  That’s just a theory but it can’t be ruled out.

Broader Economic Weakness

There are other facts that can’t be explained by the tax planning of the super wealthy.  First, FY17 (the year of the 9% property tax hike) closed out with $25 million less than expected.  Second, the county is writing down $206 million over the next six years in property taxes, energy taxes, transfer taxes, recordation taxes, telephone taxes and hotel taxes in addition to a $212 million income tax writedown.  The energy tax revision alone is $100 million over six years.  The reason for that is unclear, but it’s worth remembering that since commercial energy users pay roughly double the tax rates of residential users, some assumptions regarding employer energy use may be operative here.  It seems unlikely that a “strong economy” would produce such broad, multi-tax writedowns of the kind just put forth by the county.

What’s the bottom line?  Over the years, we have learned that under most circumstances, economic trends usually matter more than singular events.  One good year should not cause irrational exuberance and one bad tax distribution should not cause panic.  Whether the recent shortfall turns out to be meaningful or not, MoCo’s serious budgetary challenges are long term in nature.  They relate to decade-plus trends of lagging growth in employment and income, repeated funding of ongoing spending with one-time revenue sources and the county’s recent passage of large tax hikes and expensive employment laws at the same time, a unique combination among Washington-area jurisdictions.  That is on top of any targeting of Maryland and general economic insanity by Congress.  The big question is not about one tax distribution from the state but whether a combination of all these long-term factors will catch up with MoCo in a really bad way in the next couple years.

That’s a question for the next Executive and County Council.


Bill Frick: Name One Program You Would Cut

Name one program in the county budget that is not working and can be cut.  Tell us how much in annual savings that would yield.

For too long, Council members have used the County budget as a piggy bank to fund their pet projects and ideas, often ones that could not survive a serious cost/benefit review.

As we reorient County government to be a constituent-consumer focused organization, we can find savings.  For example, the county employs nearly 40 personnel in its 311 call center, despite the dramatic shift in technology away from phone calls and towards electronic communications.  If Montgomery County complemented this with a constituent service app, as exists in neighboring jurisdictions, many constituent services would be routed directly to the relevant agencies instead of going first through bureaucratic call centers, and we could save taxpayer money.

Finally, the County should not be a leader in corporate welfare.  I would end our tax credits for investors, money that goes from everyday taxpayers straight to the pockets of wealthy investors, often to reward them for making investments they would have made regardless.  This is a fight I led at the state level as the architect of the Tax Credit Evaluation Act, legislation to spotlight and reform our runaway subsidies, and by going toe-to-toe with Hollywood to make sure our tax dollars were being spent productively.


Roger Berliner: Name One Program You Would Cut

Name one program in the county budget that is not working and can be cut.  Tell us how much in annual savings that would yield.

I have been a leading proponent of trying to find ways that our county could operate more efficiently.  Working with the County Executive, I was the lead sponsor of legislation that created the Organizational Reform Commission, led by a diverse and talented group of citizens to identify ways we could make our county government more efficient.  However, at the end of the day, while there were steps we were able to take that made our county government more efficient, direct dollar savings were not significant.

I have for years argued that the County Executive should move to what is known as “zero based budgeting”.  What is zero based budgeting?  “Zero-based budgeting is a repeatable process that organizations use to rigorously review every dollar in the annual budget, manage financial performance on a monthly basis, and build a culture of cost management among all employees.”  That would be my goal as County Executive.

In addition to rigorous scrutiny of costs, there are initiatives that you don’t readily think of that can produce cost savings – initiatives like having our county buy 100% renewable power and putting solar on our county rooftops.  Those initiatives alone will save many millions of dollars going forward.  Sometimes doing the right thing actually can save taxpayer dollars!


George Leventhal: Name One Program You Would Cut

Name one program in the county budget that is not working and can be cut.  Tell us how much in annual savings that would yield.

I will work diligently with the Office of Management and Budget, and with every department, to find savings and process improvements if I am elected to lead this government. I understand the mission of every county department. I have low tolerance for redundancy. I am prepared to prioritize, and to say no to additional spending where saying no is warranted. One place we could start is by looking at how the county provides health care to its employees.

Montgomery County will spend $245 million in FY2018 on employee health coverage. In 2011, I commissioned a Task Force on Employee Wellness and Agency Consolidation, which recommended adoption of an employee wellness program. It took the Leggett administration until 2015 to get the program fully up and running. Between 2017 and 2018, health claims dropped by $3 million, although it is not clear this is statistically significant, or directly caused by participation in employee wellness programs. I am confident that continued implementation of employee wellness efforts will lead to continued reduction in utilization of health benefits, and increased savings.

The task force also recommended consolidating procurement of employee health coverage between county government, the school system and Montgomery College. The school system and the college have declined to adopt this recommendation. School employee unions feared their members might lose their more favorable benefits. However, the county’s Office of Human Resources already administers health benefits among different bargaining units, and could easily administer health benefits for school system and college employees, resulting in substantial overhead savings, and savings from group purchasing. I will continue to advocate for unified administration of health benefits among all three agencies.

Additional overhead savings, and efficiencies from volume purchasing, could also be achieved by consolidating procurement of all goods and services for county government, MCPS and Montgomery College in a single office.


Marc Elrich: Name One Program You Would Cut

  1. Name one program in the county budget that is not working and can be cut. Tell us how much in annual savings that would yield.

While there’s no one program we could cut that would produce enough savings to fund the education, transportation, and other investments the county needs, I want to explain how I would take a different approach to how the county makes budget decisions.

Montgomery County faces enormous economic and fiscal challenges: slow job growth, federal budget cuts, an aging population, poverty and its attendant social costs, inadequate infrastructure, and rising school enrollment.  Revenue projections indicate that just maintaining current services will continue to be a challenge, not to mention dealing with the costs necessary to address some of the critical unmet needs facing us.  We have to find ways to maintain the services our residents expect while addressing challenges that can impact our quality of life.

The next County Executive will need to get as much value as possible from every tax dollar, and the only way to do that is to bring a new way of thinking to how we spend our $5 billion budget.  While that’s easier said than done, my record shows I can deliver.  During my first term on the County Council, for example, I recognized that the proposed renovation of the Circuit Courthouse had morphed into an incredibly expensive total replacement.  The project didn’t make sense.  I challenged the assumptions behind the change and I ultimately helped save the county tens of millions of dollars by demonstrating that a renovation could be done much more efficiently.

If elected, my team will move away from the county’s traditional budgeting approach, which starts with last year’s spending and adjusts it incrementally.  We won’t balance budgets with across-the-board cuts that punish good programs and protect poor performers.

Our budgets will instead be built from the ground up to achieve the outcomes residents want, such as closing the opportunity gap, reducing commute times, making housing more affordable, and improving public safety.  We will work to foster a culture of innovation, cooperation, creativity, and transparency so we can move away from a “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset into a model of continuous improvement.

What does that mean?  We will work with our employees, nonprofit partners, and our customers – both residents and businesses – to ensure that our service delivery follows best practices and meets our customers’ expectations.  We will insist on accountability and make funding decisions based on performance.  We will publish an annual report, available to everyone, showing how tax dollars were spent, the measurable progress we are making toward our outcomes, and where we need to do better.

I have no doubt that, by realigning work to reflect best practices, insisting on performance accountability, and creating a culture of teamwork, we can operate existing programs more efficiently.  Doing so will allow us to pivot existing human and capital resources to better address the challenges facing us.


A Reply to Nancy Floreen on MCPS Funding

By Adam Pagnucco.

Thanks to Council Member Nancy Floreen for writing about MCPS funding in recent years in response to my blog post.  First, a note of appreciation.  While we may disagree about MCPS, we agree wholeheartedly on the issue of economic growth, which is the anchor for the county budget.  The political winds on growth shift back and forth in county politics over the decades, but Floreen has consistently pushed an economic development agenda.  She was for jobs before jobs were cool!  All the things the county has done right in economic development – and there have been a few of them – have Floreen’s fingerprints all over them.  It’s one reason why your author admires her and is sad to see her leave the County Council.

Let’s begin with areas of agreement.  First, Floreen is absolutely right about the terrible days of the Great Recession.  The county had not faced anything like it since the 1930s.  Everything had to go on the table in those days – spending cuts, layoffs, furloughs, broken collective bargaining agreements and an energy tax hike – because the alternative was default.  Floreen was Council President in 2010, the worst year of the recession.  She, the County Executive and her colleagues saved the county from fiscal disaster.  That achievement should not be forgotten.

Second, Floreen mentions the state’s teacher pension shift as a stress point on county finances.  Again, she’s absolutely right.  For many years, the state’s payment of teacher pension benefits was the one state program that disproportionately benefited Montgomery County.  That’s because our high cost of living as well as our prioritization of schools leads us to pay higher teacher salaries than the rest of the state, which results in higher pensions.  In 2010, nearly all of MoCo’s state legislators running for election promised not to shift pension costs to the counties.  But in 2012, Governor Martin O’Malley pushed a plan to do exactly that and most of our state legislators voted for it.  The result is that Montgomery County pays roughly $60 million a year for teacher pensions now, more than any jurisdiction in the state.  Compare that to the size of last year’s property tax hike, which was $140 million a year.  No matter what is said about the county, the state should not be let off the hook.

Now to the areas of disagreement.  It’s interesting that Floreen says our blog post is misleading but does not actually refute any of the data on which we rely.  She simply picks other data and disagrees with our characterizations.  We are sympathetic to her problem: it’s hard to refute data that happens to be true!  One thing she contests is our choice of FY10 as a base year for comparison.  We picked FY10 because it was the peak year of overall county spending before the Great Recession fully kicked in.  So comparing FY10 to FY16, the year before the tax hike, is valid because it’s a peak-to-peak comparison that includes both the cuts to departments in the early part of the period as well as the restoration that occurred afterwards.

She also disagrees repeatedly with our referring to MCPS as going through austerity.  Our basis for doing so was the county’s local dollar spending per pupil, which comes from county budget documents and was not contested by Floreen.  In nominal terms, here is the county’s local spending per pupil from FY06 through FY17.

The data shows that the county cut its local per pupil contribution to MCPS for three straight years and froze it for four straight years.  This period greatly exceeds the length of the Great Recession.  The local per pupil contribution went up after last year’s property tax increase.

Last year’s per pupil bump looks significant, but here is the same data adjusted by the Washington-Baltimore CPI and presented in real terms using 2017 dollars.  (We estimated 2017 inflation at 2.02%, the average rate of the preceding years in the chart.)  Clearly, even with the tax hike, the county’s local-dollar commitment to schools is not what it once was.  And the CPI underestimates major cost drivers for the schools, such as the costs of serving rising numbers of students who live in poverty and need language services.

Floreen then talks about the county departments that were cut during the recession.  She’s right: they were cut.  But after the recession ended, most of them were restored to levels exceeding what they were before the recession.  Meanwhile, county dollars for MCPS were cut by $33 million between FY10 and FY16.  Floreen doesn’t deny that, but she notes that local dollars aren’t the only source for MCPS’s budget.  The schools get plenty of state money too.  Floreen says this:

What really matters is the total MCPS budget, not the State share versus the local share. The higher State spending for MCPS in recent years reflects that the State’s funding formulas, at long last, are starting to recognize our students’ actual needs, as shown in our higher ESOL and FARMS populations. The State aid increases, which were long overdue, enabled us to provide continued strong support for MCPS during the Great Recession without further decimating every other function of government.  Why is that not a good thing?

Floreen is conceding a central point of our original post which is reinforced in the per pupil data above: the county depended on state aid to keep MCPS afloat while it restricted its own contributions to the school system.  Meanwhile, MCPS enrollment grew from 140,500 to 156,514 between FY10 and FY16, an 11% increase.  The Great Recession by itself can’t be cited as a justification for restricting county dollars for schools because the restrictions continued long after the trough of the recession had passed.  Indeed, fifteen other counties increased their local per pupil contributions after the recession ended, including nine controlled by Republicans.  The message here is, “The state was paying for our schools so we didn’t have to increase county per pupil spending on them.”  Is that “continued strong support for MCPS” as claimed above?  Is it satisfactory for parents and voters?  Let the readers decide.

Finally, Floreen repeats her longstanding point that last year’s 9% property tax hike was intended to support MCPS.  That’s true: MCPS did get a big share of that money.  But so did the rest of the government.  Last year, we laid out how the county could have cut the tax hike in half, still given MCPS all the money requested in the County Executive’s budget and done it without spending cuts to other agencies.  County Executive Ike Leggett, who originally proposed the tax hike, asked the council to cut the rate increase in half after the General Assembly passed a law easing the county’s liability from a U.S. Supreme Court decision on income taxes.  But the council chose to keep every penny of the original tax hike and spread it across every agency instead.  That’s not an Education First budget – it’s an Everything First budget.  The result of the tax hike was a tremendous boost for the 40-point triumph of term limits at the ballot box.  Even the council’s own spokesman at the time now says the tax hike was unnecessary and is vowing to stop another one if he is elected to Floreen’s open seat.

Look folks.  We get this is tough medicine.  We understand that elected officials don’t like to be criticized, especially around election time.  And we understand that Nancy Floreen, a Council Member we respect, would like to go out on top.  But it’s important to understand the past to prepare for the future.  The schools need small, steady increases in per pupil funding to deal with their challenges.  There can no longer be wild swings between extended periods of per pupil cuts and freezes followed by huge tax hikes intended to undo the effects of those cuts and freezes.  To fund MCPS fairly without raising taxes, the county will have to restrain the overall growth of the rest of the budget to pay for it.  There cannot be any more Everything First budgets.  With four Council Members leaving and the Executive race wide open, it will be up to the next generation of county officials to chart a better way forward.