The next county executive will face major challenges. Montgomery County’s economy is not performing well. While it’s a long-time cliché that we’re losing business to Northern Virginia—Ellen Sauerbrey campaigned on that theme in 1994—the County has not done well in creating new employment over the past several years.
Jobs, of course, are critical to success of county residents and also the tax base. Employment is the best social justice program ever invented. If the tax base stagnates, there will not be enough money to maintain the array of services for which Montgomery County is renowned, let alone spend more to lend people who need it a helping hand.
I’m hoping that whoever is elected county executive will have a forward-thinking plan for economic development. Though the newly launched Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation imitates the highly successful efforts of Howard and Fairfax to pursue business opportunities, I remain skeptical that it will achieve the same levels of success, as currently managed and structured.
We also need someone who is willing to break a few eggs and not see barriers as they launch more ambitious projects in a manner reminiscent of Doug Duncan. Even though they will not all work out, new ideas both for the County and how to organize County government to work better and more efficiently need to be tried or the County’s relative decline will start to feel a lot less genteel very soon.
The challenge will be especially great because tax increases are not a real option. Though we are now out of the recession, the income tax remains set at the charter limit. In 2016, the County Council achieved the unanimity required to increase property taxes significantly above the charter limit. Fees have also gone up for everything from recording property to public parking. The one area of tax opportunity may be making commercial development pay for improvements that clearly aid their own efforts.
While being inventive, the new county executive should maintain certain key policies of the Leggett Administration. In particular, the County must continue to adopt budgets and fund future obligations in a manner that retains its AAA bond rating. The County Executive also needs to focus on the core priorities of local government. Too often, the County Council has spent an inordinate amount of time on issues peripheral to core functions.
Finally, and perhaps most important in our era of seemingly toxic politics, we need someone who continues Ike’s outstanding record of listening respectfully to people who disagree, often vehemently, and is a model for civility in governance. That should be possible even as the new executive presses forward with new ideas and needed reforms.