Tag Archives: Marc Elrich

Elrich Sends Budget Letter to the Council

By Adam Pagnucco.

Facing severe crises to public health, the county’s economy and its budget, County Executive Marc Elrich sent the letter below to the county council about the budget.  The main takeaways are:

1. The executive has instituted freezes on hiring and procurement for functions not related to COVID-19 response.  Overtime has also been restricted to COVID-19 response departments.

2. The finance department has begun estimating the crisis’s impact on county revenues.

3. The executive has begun talking to the county’s unions about “a range of compensation issues.”  No further details were provided.

4. Office of Management and Budget Director Rich Madaleno has been designated as the liaison to the council on “issues related to fiscal response and recovery.”  When Madaleno was a State Senator, he was a key player in working on the state’s budget problems during the Great Recession.  Few people in Maryland understand the state budget better than Madaleno.

We reprint Elrich’s letter below.  Bethesda Beat has reactions from some members of the county council.

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Hucker, Elrich Stop Takeout Tickets

By Adam Pagnucco.

Within minutes of seeing our post on parking tickets being issued for restaurant takeout pickups, Council Member Tom Hucker asked county officials to stop the practice. When Hucker announced this on Facebook, County Executive Marc Elrich replied, “I just told DOT to stop enforcement until they have put in place pick-up zones around all the restaurants. We don’t want cars parking and not moving, at least as long as some things are open, but you can’t be ticketing people trying to pick up food after having encouraged restaurants to maintain as much service as they can through carry-out and delivery.”

All of this happened in less than an hour.

Elrich and Hucker deserve praise for acting with such speed.

Hucker’s Facebook post, along with Elrich’s comment, is reprinted below.

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The County Budget is in Crisis. What Now?

By Adam Pagnucco.

After arguably the worst communications debacle in county government history, the Elrich administration is now belatedly defending its recommended FY21 operating budget.  But we are waaaaaaay past that now.  Whatever one thinks of Elrich’s budget, it is obsolete.

That’s because it is based on revenue projections from an economy that no longer exists.

Virtually everyone paying any attention understands that the economy is in ruins.  That’s not just true for MoCo; it’s true for the entire country and beyond.  J.P. Morgan is now projecting that the nation’s second-quarter gross domestic product could decline at an annualized rate of 5-10%.  In Maryland, unemployment claims are at nearly five times their regular levels.  Here in MoCo, tens of thousands of employees are now enduring cuts in work hours – if not outright layoffs – in the industries most affected by the “social distancing” used to combat the coronavirus.  Consider 2018 Montgomery County employment in the following industries from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Restaurants and other eating places: 29,647

Services to buildings and dwellings: 13,585

Personal and laundry services: 5,852

Child day care services: 4,854

Fitness and recreational sports centers: 4,005

Accommodation: 3,416

Performing arts and spectator sports: 1,469

Motion picture theaters: 494

Wage losses in these industries are certain to show up in reduced income tax receipts.  Because of the nature of these kinds of jobs, the affected workers will likely never recover that income.  All of this is going to profoundly hit the county budget.  And it is coming in the middle of the county’s budget process, which normally concludes in mid-May.

As Fred Sanford used to say, this is the big one!

We haven’t seen anything quite like the coronavirus pandemic in a century, but we have seen economic crises before.  The last one MoCo encountered happened a decade ago.  The Great Recession had been underway since 2008 but did not truly destroy the county’s budget until the spring of 2010.  As required by the county’s charter, then-County Executive Ike Leggett released his recommended FY11 budget on March 15.  Just ten days later, Leggett sent a memo to the county council explaining that circumstances had changed since his budget was transmitted.  Leggett wrote:

I am sending this memorandum to recommend that we jointly take additional actions to strengthen the County’s financial position in the current fiscal year and for FY11.

There is no perfect time to formulate a budget. Since I recommended my budget earlier this month, we have already received more bad news that points to additional fiscal deterioration. This includes a dramatic increase in the County’s unemployment rate from 5.2% to 6.2% and may signal further erosion of income tax revenue. In addition, Anne Arundel County’s bond rating was recently downgraded from a AA+ to a AA rating due to several factors including the deteriorating condition of Anne Arundel’s reserves. At the same time, the Department of Finance has been in discussions with the bond rating agencies relative to an upcoming bond sale and is concerned about feedback they have received from the rating agencies on our fiscal position.

At that time, Leggett recommended increasing the energy tax and transferring money from non-tax supported funds into the general fund, which is the county’s main vehicle for funding most governmental functions.

On April 5, Leggett followed with a second memo explaining that the county’s March income tax distribution had fallen significantly and that Moody’s had placed the county on a watch list for a potential bond rating downgrade.  Things were getting worse.  Leggett wrote that he “asked the OMB and Finance Directors to meet with the department heads of all large County Government departments to identify outstanding, remaining purchases and reimbursements for FY10 or early FY11.”

On April 22, Leggett sent a third memo to the council outlining a $168 million writedown in income tax revenue and a resulting total fiscal gap of “approximately $200 million.”  Leggett forwarded a long list of recommended spending cuts along with a larger increase to the energy tax to close the gap.  By this point, Leggett had essentially re-written his recommended budget, which was released just 5 weeks earlier.

The resulting budget passed by the council in May was the ugliest budget in county history.  It broke collective bargaining agreements, furloughed county employees, doubled the energy tax and spent 4.5% less money than the prior year’s approved budget, the first actual dollar spending cut that anyone could remember.  But it did not resort to mass layoffs and the county kept its AAA bond rating.  For all its fiscal brutality, this budget saved the county from financial disaster.  It was Leggett’s greatest achievement and it was shared by a county council that did its job.

Today’s policy makers should heed the lessons of 2010.  (The only current elected officials who were in county office that year were Council Member Nancy Navarro and then-Council Member Marc Elrich, who is now the executive.)  Chief among them are that teamwork, honesty, speed, an absence of finger pointing and political courage were all crucial to success.  No one was trying to score points.  Everyone was trying to do their best.  Amazingly, it all happened in an election year.

Here is what must happen now.

1.  Elrich must stop defending his recommended budget.  It no longer matters whether it was a good budget or not.  It’s not going to happen now.  The actual revenues generated from the county’s emaciated economy will not support it.  And once the council starts making changes, he has to be constructively involved, as Leggett was.  Standing aside and taking potshots from the sidelines would be a failure of leadership.

2.  The finance department must revise its revenue estimates, especially for income taxes.  Leggett’s finance department was able to see a deterioration in income tax receipts within three weeks of the release of his recommended budget.  Today’s finance department must react with the same speed.

3.  The office of management and budget must prepare a menu of savings options for the council.  Everything – Elrich’s collective bargaining agreements (which now contain raises of up to 7-8%), hiring freezes, attrition and more – needs to be on the table.  The council must know what number it needs to hit and they need to have choices on how to get there.

4.  A discussion must take place about the county’s reserves.  As of FY20, the county’s reserves (including its agencies) were estimated to be more than $500 million, or 10.5% of revenues.  That’s a lot higher than the 6% reserve level possessed by the county in 2010 and is a direct result of Leggett’s long-term plan to bolster reserves and maintain the bond rating.  It’s a great goal to have a 10% reserve, but that money is kept available for emergencies – and that’s exactly what we have now.  County leaders should discuss whether we need to maintain reserves at that level or if they can be used to plug government spending holes and/or to fortify the economy.  Comptroller Peter Franchot has already recommended that $500 million be allocated from the state’s rainy day fund to assist small businesses.

5.  With public participation in the budget process limited by the coronavirus, the county must keep residents and businesses informed of the latest budgetary and economic developments.  The county has a large media apparatus that it can tap for doing so.

Ike Leggett proved that he was up to the task of dealing with a crisis.  Now it’s time for today’s elected officials to show that they are too.

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County Screw-Up Led to Tax Hike Proposal

By Adam Pagnucco.

Buried in the fine print of County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended FY21 operating budget is a shocking revelation: the executive claims that a mistake made by county revenue estimators two years ago has caused tens of millions of dollars in losses for the county.  One reason why the Elrich administration is proposing a tax hike now is to recover that money.

To understand what happened, we have to understand how the county’s charter limit on property taxes functions.  Here is the exact text of the charter limit.

Unless approved by an affirmative vote of all current Councilmembers, the Council shall not levy an ad valorem tax on real property to finance the budgets that will produce total revenue that exceeds the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year plus a percentage of the previous year’s real property tax revenues that equals any increase in the Consumer Price Index as computed under this section. This limit does not apply to revenue from: (1) newly constructed property, (2) newly rezoned property, (3) property that, because of a change in state law, is assessed differently than it was assessed in the previous tax year, (4) property that has undergone a change in use, and (5) any development district tax used to fund capital improvement projects.

In plain English, what this means is that the county’s real property tax receipts (with a few exceptions) may not rise at an annual rate exceeding inflation unless the entire council votes to exceed it.

Calculating the charter limit involves three basic steps.  First, one must estimate the value of the assessable base subject to the charter limit.  Second, one must calculate the value of the many property tax credits offered by the county.  Third, one must calculate the levels of real property tax rates that, when applied to the assessable base and taking account of the credits, produce an increase in receipts equal to the rate of inflation.

Hence, estimating the size of the assessable base is critical.  If it is underestimated, property tax rates will be set too high and the charter limit will be violated.  If it is overestimated, property tax rates will be set too low and the county will not collect as much revenue as it could at the charter limit.  These are extremely technical considerations but this affects tens of millions of dollars (at least) for the county budget.

In his recommended budget, the county executive makes this statement:

I am proposing this supplemental tax rate this year to partially offset an unexpected underperformance of the property tax for the last two years. In preparing the FY19 County budget, the taxable property base of the County was overvalued. As a result, the property tax rate needed to generate revenues at the Charter limit for the past two years was set too low. This resulted in lost revenues of $80 million, now permanently embedded in our revenue projections.

The amount of revenue lost by this mistake was $35 million in FY19 and $45 million in FY20.  Because of compounding, the lost revenue will rise each year unless it is recovered.

It’s important to note that Elrich was not yet the county executive when the FY19 charter limit was estimated.  That was done by the finance department in former County Executive Ike Leggett’s last year.

Must the losses be stanched?  The county usually allows property tax receipts to rise up to the charter limit each year, but there is nothing in county law requiring that.  For example, in FY13, Leggett recommended level-funding of property tax receipts, which actually kept them below the charter limit.  The amount of forgone revenue was estimated at $26 million that year, which would have risen in subsequent years.  However, this was not the result of an estimation mistake.  The county had doubled the energy tax two years before and had not sunset it as was promised.  Forgoing a bit of property taxes was something of a consolation.

This issue must be frustrating for all concerned.  County leaders have a choice.  They can live with the mistake and move on.  Or they can tell voters, “We screwed up and now we need to raise your taxes.”

If option number two is selected, how do you think folks will respond to that?

Dear reader, if you are someone who is considering running for office someday, remember this story.  Something terrible could happen to you when you run.

You could win!

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Marc Elrich’s Budget Message

The following is the overview from the $5.9 billion budget proposed by Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich. You can find the full budget proposal below:

This budget is focused on providing our youngest residents with a great start to life. To that end, I have proposed funding of $2.8 billion for the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). I am also proposing $10.4 million for our Early Care and Education Initiative so that we can continue to expand and improve early education services.

This budget contains a modest 0.8 percent increase in tax-supported spending for County Government, which is directed primarily at increasing affordable housing and addressing structural gaps in our fire service and transit budgets. This budget provides our residents with a great amount of detail about my entire $5.9 billion recommended budget.

This budget also ensures that we attain our fiscal policy goal of holding 10 percent of our adjusted gross revenues in reserve in FY20, and we maintain that level in FY21. This is of particular importance now as we face uncertain times.

As I finalize the details of my recommended budget, I am keenly aware of the public health emergency facing our community and the nation. I am proposing this budget with a focus on both the next few days and weeks, as well as the next year and beyond. As we respond to this global health emergency, the economic situation of our residents and our nation are changing rapidly. While this budget reflects my view of County Government on March 16, we all need to be flexible to respond to changing conditions and needs. These conditions may result in me submitting revisions, supplementals and amendments to alter this proposal as conditions warrant.

As we address the immediate needs of our residents and plan for the future, one thing has become abundantly clear to me – our County Government’s revenue structure has reached the breaking point and must be fundamentally altered.

Our County Charter includes a provision that limits the growth in property tax revenue – not property tax rates – to the growth in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all consumers in the Baltimore-Washington Region from the December 1 to November 30 of the preceding year. Since the Federal Government no longer publishes this index, we have been using the CPI for just the Washington Region. For the period of December 1, 2018, to November 30, 2019, the CPI for the Washington region was only 1.27 percent. No matter how much assessments increase, the total amount of property tax revenues cannot grow by more than 1.27 percent.

It is important to note that this revenue limit does not mean the average property tax bill will only increase by 1.27 percent. Quite the opposite. Most individual bills will increase (or decrease) by the change in one’s taxable assessment. Since County law limits growth in assessments to 10 percent in any given year, a property with such an increase in value will see its tax bill go up by roughly 10 percent. The Charter revenue limit only redistributes the tax burden from properties with little to no increased value to those properties with the greatest increase in value. This has meant that some residents in modestly priced homes have faced 10 percent increases while some high-value properties actually saw their tax bill cut.

When the County Council proposed to the voters our current Charter limit on property taxes in 1990, few people could have foreseen the dramatic changes that would take place in Montgomery County and around the globe. In the past 30 years, our school population has grown by 65 percent and our overall population has grown by 40 percent. The services we provide are now more complex and seek to address a range of challenges, from traffic congestion and climate change to health care disparities and linguistic diversity. And over the past four decades, our property tax rate has declined by 35 percent.

We have all witnessed other local governments regionally and nationally experience generational decline due to conflicting, irreconcilable fiscal policies. Montgomery County is at the precipice of such a decline if we cannot get ourselves out of this cycle of self-enforced structural deficits and inequitable, unpredictable revenue caps. Therefore, I will be sending the Council a proposal for a Charter amendment that will revise our revenue cap to provide certainty to homeowners. This proposal will eliminate our old, cumbersome revenue cap and replace it with a three percent cap on the increase in any homeowner’s taxable assessment. This will give our taxpayers real protection from unexpected increases in property values. It will also provide the County Government with a higher degree of predictable tax revenues like every other jurisdiction in our region.

Without such a change in the Charter, our community could be facing a situation in FY21 where a recession and deflation cripple our ability to provide emergency services and a quality public education system. This perfect storm would threaten lives and diminish the value of properties in our County. I will not stand by and let our community be harmed by the ghosts of voters from four decades ago.

In order to meet the challenge of our rapidly growing school system over the next year, this budget proposal also calls for the creation of a 3.1 cent supplemental property tax rate. State law provides each county with the authority to establish a supplemental property tax rate exclusively for its public schools. While this will be the first use of this State authority in our county, three other counties have already established a similar supplemental tax for their public schools. Even with this additional funding, we will still be providing the school system with less support per pupil than in 2010. A decade of slow growth nationally, unpredictable tax policy changes at the Federal level, and our severe Charter limit has left our schools playing catch-up on funding while absorbing an enrollment growth of more than 25,000 new students.

I am proposing this supplemental tax rate this year to partially offset an unexpected underperformance of the property tax for the last two years. In preparing the FY19 County budget, the taxable property base of the County was overvalued. As a result, the property tax rate needed to generate revenues at the Charter limit for the past two years was set too low. This resulted in lost revenues of $80 million, now permanently embedded in our revenue projections. Fortunately, the income tax has overperformed estimates during FY20 to offset this loss. However, even before the current COVID-19 crisis developed, we were forecasting income tax revenues to drop to a lower level. With this supplemental tax rate, we will be back to the rate set for FY17. We will remain significantly lower than other Maryland counties and in line with the residential rates in Northern Virginia. It is also important to note that the Northern Virginia counties charge higher rates for commercial properties with even higher rates for commercial properties in business districts like Tysons and Crystal City.

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Elrich Then and Elrich Now

By Adam Pagnucco.

The big news coming out of County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended Fiscal Year 2021 budget is that he is proposing a tax hike.  As you might imagine, I will have something to say about the specifics of that tax proposal in future days.  But first, it’s worth remembering what Elrich said about taxes when he was running for executive two years ago.  Over and over, he made statements ranging from saying that he did not want to raise taxes all the way to flatly refusing to raise them.  Consider the following:

1.  In July 2018, Elrich told WAMU that he “doesn’t want to raise taxes, but would like to see developers pay a greater share of infrastructure costs in the county.”

2.  In a candidate forum in October 2018, Elrich said, “I’m not raising taxes and I’m not raising fees.”  Check out Elrich’s remarks at 1:25 of this video.

3.  In May 2018, Bethesda Beat reporter Lou Peck asked Elrich this question:

As county executive, could you foresee yourself proposing a property tax increase above the charter limit of the rate of inflation, requiring another unanimous council vote?

Elrich replied:

I would seriously hope not. I feel that before you go talk about a tax increase, I would have to demonstrate to people that I’ve done everything I can do to lean out the county, to make sure we’re as efficient as possible, that I’ve taken people and been able to repurpose them, rather than just going to taxes first. I think the days of going to taxes first are over.

4.  In November 2018, Elrich said the following to Source of the Spring:

“A lot of people ask me about taxes,” Elrich said. “One of the issues in the campaign, people said, ‘Oh, Marc is going to bring in all these massive numbers of social programs and raise taxes on everybody.’ And actually that’s not what we’re doing. We know that the budget is going to be constrained.

“We’re pretty committed to staying inside the box and trying to run the government more efficiently,” he continued. “I’ve been telling people I’ve got $5.5 billion or more in revenue, and if I’m going to look for doing new things and being creative, I’m going to look at the revenue I have [and] figure out how to use it better. I think we can do a better job.”

5.  Immediately after he was elected, WAMU asked Elrich about taxes.

Despite being Maryland’s largest county with more than a million people, Montgomery County tax revenues aren’t growing fast enough to keep up with rising costs, Elrich said.

But, he said, a tax increase is out of the question.

“If you don’t handle the money you have better, you’re gonna have a hard time doing what you’re doing today, let alone doing things that you need to [in the future],” Elrich said. “But I think it’s actually a good thing to have this decision that there’s not going to be additional taxes because it means you actually have to think about what you’re doing.”

As a candidate, Elrich proposed an alternative to tax hikes: restructuring the government to increase efficiency and save money.  In a November 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post, Elrich wrote:

Far from saddling taxpayers with higher bills, I will streamline county government. Unions and their members, our county’s workforce, know and trust me. That is why we announced our plan to restructure county government together. Our county is facing difficult financial times; without thoughtful changes, employees will face across-the-board cuts.

Elrich elaborated on his restructuring plans in his 2018 questionnaire response to the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce.

I have explained how I would begin to rethink government in my First 90 Days Financial To-Do List, which you can find on my website. In this list, I lay out how I would initiate a long-term financial plan, increase the net profit contribution from the Department of Liquor Control, begin a structural review of county departments in partnership with the county workforce, implement a labor-management partnership called gainsharing (in which both parties agree on targets for improving performance and reducing cost and everyone receives a share of the savings generated), leverage a business process improvement system called Lean, assess the appropriateness of county reserve levels, improve data practices, review non-competitive county contracts, establish an innovation fund, increase government accountability, and develop budgets that prioritize spending and ensure that the county meets financial commitments in a sustainable way.

After Elrich’s election, the Sentinel interviewed him and reported, “Elrich said he plans to restructure the County government to make it run more efficiently, saying that doing so will help pay for the new programs he proposes without needing to raise taxes.”

So according to candidate Elrich, there would be no need for tax hikes because he would work with the unions to restructure government and save money.  What is his actual governing record through his first two budgets?

1.  Elrich’s recommended FY20 operating budget contained an increase of 82 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in county government.  This does not include position increases in other agencies like MCPS, the college or park and planning.  The personnel cost increase recommended for county government was $37 million.  For the three county government unions, Elrich negotiated contracts containing raises of up to 9.4% for some employees.

2.  Elrich’s recommended FY21 operating budget contains an increase of 189 FTEs in county government with a personnel cost increase of $21 million.  Again, this omits increases in MCPS, the college and park and planning.  Elrich’s negotiated contracts with the three county government unions contain raises of up to 8% for some employees plus lump sum bonuses of $1,000 and longevity increases for some employee categories.

3.  The county council trimmed Elrich’s contract with MCGEO last year but his contracts and increases for managers and non-union employees this year will cost a combined $27.4 million in FY21 and $37.7 million each year thereafter.

And so, if there has been any restructuring at all, it has not saved any money or created any obvious new efficiencies.  Instead of streamlining government – as he said he would do – Elrich just wants a tax hike.

Would anyone like to rerun the 2018 county executive election right about now?

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Is This the Worst Communications Debacle in County History?

By Adam Pagnucco.

As MoCo residents are just now starting to find out, County Executive Marc Elrich has recommended a property tax hike as part of his Fiscal Year 2021 budget.  And how did they find this out?  The first mention of it came from a county council statement released at 1:05 PM today opposing the tax hike.  As of this writing, the public knows little about the budget other than the fact that it contains a tax increase.

With the coronavirus spreading and the local economy on its knees, how do you think folks are going to feel about that?

Let’s set aside for the moment any analysis of the merits of the tax hike.  (That will come.)  Instead, let’s consider how a competent administration would try to roll this out.  In the past, administrations held press events with the council on the mornings of their recommended budget releases.  Right after those events, press releases went out containing loooooooong lists of all the goodies in the budgets.  More money for schools?  Check.  More social workers?  Check.  Increased numbers of police officers?  Check.  Big Macs for every girl and boy (or quinoa for the healthy eaters)?  Check.  Doug Duncan, Ike Leggett – it didn’t matter who it was, they all put on a Santa cap and handed out cookies from the chimney, at least when there wasn’t a recession.

But this budget contains a tax hike.  No problem, plenty of budgets in the past contained tax hikes.  You sell those tax hikes based on what they buy and other factors making them necessary.  Leggett, for example, sold his FY11 doubling of the energy tax hike as being the only way that he could preserve the bond rating.  In FY17, the county council sold its 8.7% property tax increase as an “Education First” budget.  It didn’t matter so much whether they were right.  The point is that they had an argument to make.

And now to today.  The administration was always going to face hurdles in selling a tax hike.  After all, the council just two weeks ago said that they didn’t want more taxing authority from the state because they weren’t interested in raising taxes.  So what do you do?  First, you line up advocates who benefit from the tax hike and forge them into an army.  That shouldn’t be so hard since the teachers, the service employees, MCGEO, the non-profits, the enviros and lots of other stakeholders are getting a piece of the new money either directly or indirectly.  Invite them to your presser.  If the coronavirus prevents that, get them in writing.  Have them make videos.  Include supportive quotes from them in your own communications.  Have them all up team up on an online petition.  (MCGEO already has one that they promoted through a mailer.)  Have them send out supportive blast emails and social media posts the very morning on which the budget is released.  And so on.  The point here is that this isn’t just the executive’s budget.  It belongs to all of these other groups too.  This makes the council members understand that they would pay a price by voting no.

The budget isn’t drafted overnight; it takes weeks to prepare.  That means the executive branch had time to get ready.  They should have lined everything up and beat the council (and everyone else) to the punch.  Yeah, the critics are going to cry about it, but let them go last so YOU can define this budget first.  Instead, the administration did… apparently nothing.  There was no morning press event, even a livestreamed one, and there were no preemptive communications – at least none that I saw.  The very first communication released from the county came from eight council members who opposed the tax increase.  As of this writing, other than a brief statement from Elrich defending the tax hike, there is STILL no comprehensive communication from the county listing all the benefits of the budget.  Is anyone other than Elrich out there defending it?

What a disaster!

So who should be upset about this?  It shouldn’t be the tax opponents.  The administration’s incompetence allowed them to define the budget around the tax increase.  Robin Ficker has to be bellowing in joy right now.

The folks who should be really upset are the ones who might benefit from the tax hike.  A proper communications effort should have been designed to get the council to hold off on expressing opinions about the increase, thereby buying time for the advocates to lobby them and start shifting some votes around.  Instead, eight council members said no immediately in the most public way possible.  (Council Member Nancy Navarro, who has chaired the council’s tax-writing committee for ten years, followed up with a hell no.)  It would be very hard for the council to move off that now.  As for the advocates, instead of waging a common battle for a bigger pie, they might have to fight each other for scraps as the council figures out how to reduce the executive’s increase in county expenditures.

And so, because of an epic communications debacle, a tough sell has become damn near impossible.

Congrats to the administration.  Or something.

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Elrich Defends His Tax Hike

By Adam Pagnucco.

Forty-five minutes after eight members of the county council released a statement opposing the property tax hike contained in County Executive Marc Elrich’s recommended budget, the executive has released a statement defending it. We reprint it below.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s Statement on Release of his Recommended Fiscal Year 2021 Operating Budget

As required by the County Charter, I submitted my annual budget to the County Council earlier today. My staff and I have been working on this budget for more than six months. During that time, we received budget requests from the community, the school system, our departments and Councilmembers that help to shape this budget proposal. The three-cent increase is a special tax that is specifically designed for education and would help to fund the budget request from Montgomery County Public Schools.

At the time that we were developing this budget, COVID-19 was not on the horizon and now, during these unique and difficult times, we have to factor in its impact. I stand by the need for us to increase our investment in education, but I understand the unique situation that we are currently in. We have all known from the beginning that funding the school system’s request could not be funded within anticipated revenues and, as we have been working at the State level to increase school funding through the Build Act and Kirwan, I believe that we should make the additional investment in schools that they need today, even if it required a special tax increase dedicated to the schools.

I combined this proposed three-cent special schools tax increase with a $108 increase in the County’s property tax credit so that a homeowner with a $500,000 home would see about a $42 annual tax increase—the three cents would raise the taxes by $150, but combined with the County property tax, the net increase is $42. A one million dollar home would have a net $192 per year increase. 

As in every budget cycle, I have informed the Council that I will work with it to find ways to deal with the budget.

Dealing with today’s emergency situation and having a long overdue community conversation about the future we want to build for our County will be a challenge in coming weeks.  The challenges we face in areas such as education, economic development and transportation will still be there long after this crisis is over and we can’t take our eyes off the future no matter how hard those decisions will be. I know that in today’s context it is hard to determine what the future looks like, but we will balance addressing our present situation with planning for the future of this County. And we will do it together.

To learn more about the recommended operating budget, go to https://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/operatingbudget

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Elrich Recommends Tax Hike, Council Says No

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive Marc Elrich has proposed a 3.18 cent property tax hike in his recommended Fiscal Year 2021 operating budget, which was released today. The budget does not state the exact size of the tax hike, but because state data indicates that the county collects almost $20 million per penny in real property taxes, the tax hike is probably in the vicinity of $60 million.

Soon after receiving Elrich’s budget, the entire county council except for Council Member Tom Hucker released a statement opposing the tax hike. Their statement is reprinted below.

Statement by Montgomery County Council President Katz and Councilmembers Albornoz, Friedson, Glass, Jawando, Navarro, Rice and Riemer on the County Executive’s Fiscal Year 2021 $5.9 Billion Operating Budget Recommendation

ROCKVILLE, Md., March 16, 2020—Montgomery County Council President Sidney Katz and Councilmembers Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Evan Glass, Will Jawando, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer, made the following statement on County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed 3.18 cent property tax increase in the fiscal year 2021 Recommended Operating Budget:

“Our focus in the midst of an unprecedented health emergency must be on bringing together businesses and residents, nonprofits and government to address the immediate crisis we face. We also must provide as much certainty and support as we can for county residents who understandably fear what the economic realities of this global pandemic will have on their jobs, retirement savings, small businesses and families.

This is a time for cautious decision-making, not property tax increases. We look forward to working with the County Executive to address the initiatives in his budget recommendations.”

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Affordable Housing Spat: Who’s Right?

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive Marc Elrich and his biggest critic, Council Member Hans Riemer, are feuding once again.  This time, the subject is affordable housing.  Elrich says his new recommended capital budget includes a record sum for affordable housing.  Riemer says there are in fact no new resources.

Who is right?

Let’s consider the statements from each of them.  First, here is Elrich.

Affordable housing is one of my top priorities. It is vital to our County’s future success. We must maintain and expand our stock of affordable housing and we are taking this critical issue head on in the capital budget. That is why I am recommending we add $132 million for affordable housing to the capital budget over the next six years.

This is a record level of funding for affordable housing projects for our capital budget. These funds will be used by the Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation Project to facilitate efforts to preserve existing stock and increase the number of affordable housing units in the County. But that is not all.

In this Capital budget, I am proposing a new Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund to leverage funding from other partners that will support short-term financing while affordable housing developers arrange for permanent project financing.

Here is Riemer’s response.

On affordable housing, I was initially encouraged by the Executive’s speech about increasing funding levels. Indeed, I am intrigued by his proposal to create a new housing preservation fund. However, while he claims to have added more than $132 million in the affordable housing fund, after further examination it became clear that the annual amount is unchanged at $22 million. Under the last Executive, affordable housing funding was only programmed for the first two years of the six year budget, but additional funding was always added in the subsequent years. We need to increase our affordable housing fund to at least $100 million annually. This change in accounting will not result in increased resources. In combination with his resistance to the Council’s affordable housing goals, developed with and agreed upon by all the local governments in Washington region, the County Executive’s housing policy continues to be a matter of serious concern.

These two like each other about as much as Popeye and Bluto.  (Which one is Popeye depends on your point of view!)  But how can their statements be reconciled?

Since Fiscal Year 2001, the county’s primary affordable housing vehicle has been its Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation program, which appears in the county’s capital budget.  The program enables the county to buy or renovate, or assist other entities to buy or renovate, affordable housing.  It is financed by several sources including but not limited to loan repayments and the county’s Housing Investment Fund (which is mostly supported by recordation taxes).

The capital budget, which includes the Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation program, is a six-year budget.  In even years (like 2020), it is written anew and in odd years, it is amended.  Projects in the capital budget can have up to six different years of funding in them (with more scheduled outside of the budget’s six year horizon).  In the past, the affordable housing program has only shown funding for the first two years of the capital budget with zero money programmed in the last four years.  But since the capital budget is rewritten every two years with affordable housing money renewed in each successive budget, that has not mattered.

The table below shows funding for the Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation program in the last 16 capital budgets.  Each budget covers six years.  Budgets labeled with an “A” are amended budgets programmed in off years.

At first glance, Elrich appears to be right.  His new recommended capital budget includes $132 million for Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation, which is far higher than any previous capital budget.  But let’s remember what Riemer said about the annual amount of spending.  All the previous six-year budgets included funding during the first two years only.  Elrich’s new capital budget shows funding for the Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation program in all six years.  Riemer is correct: an accounting change caused the apparent increase in this program.

But the story doesn’t end there.  Elrich created a new program in the capital budget called the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund.  This program is dedicated to acquiring affordable housing in areas at risk of rent escalation, such as those near the Purple Line and other transit corridors, and is intended to use public funds to leverage private funds in acquiring and preserving affordable housing.  This new program provides $10 million in each of the new capital budget’s first two years for this purpose.  That money comes from recordation tax premiums which are normally used to finance transportation projects, so it’s not “free” money.  But it is more money for affordable housing.

Combining the existing Affordable Housing Acquisition and Preservation program and Elrich’s new Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund, the table below shows the annual expenditures for affordable housing in the capital budget since FY05.  Annual expenditures are drawn from the first two years of every amended capital budget with FY21 and FY22 drawn from the executive’s new recommended capital budget.

Combining the two programs, Elrich recommends spending more capital money for affordable housing in FY21 and FY22 than any annual expenditure in the preceding published budgets.  When adjusting for inflation, Elrich’s FY21 and FY22 spending amounts are roughly equal to the Leggett administration’s peak affordable housing years of FY09 and FY10, so one can quibble about whether Elrich’s spending is truly a record.  But when Elrich’s new Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund is included, the first two years of his new budget definitely show an annual increase for affordable housing over the prior budget.

The county’s capital budget has been shrinking due to cutbacks in general obligation bond issuances and declining projected school impact tax receipts.  That’s a dire subject for another time.  But given the county’s budget difficulties, Elrich’s financial commitment to affordable housing is meaningful.  Friends and foes alike should give him credit for it.

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