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At the hearing in the County Council hearing room Joan Fidler, Vice-President of MCTL, gave this testimony April 9, 2014:
Montgomery County Council FY 2015 Budget Testimony
Joan Fidler – MCPS Budget, April 9, 2014
I am Joan Fidler, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League. Here are our comments on the proposed FY 2015 budget.
First, we find untenable the unsustainable pay raises ranging from 6.75% – 9.75% for county workers. Yes, they are deserving of a pay raise but these somewhat wild leaps do not make sense. Is the private sector in the county quite as generous? Is the federal government? Yes, we did support pay raises for you and the County Executive and we stand by them. 10 people with a pay raise who have responsibilities greater than those of the rest of the county government will not break the budget. 9,600 people are another matter. Reduce their pay raises by half. You will save $10 million.
Next, the energy tax that is now looked on as a permanent stream of revenue – a tax that we were promised was a temporary tax meant for extraordinary times. It should have faded into the sunset but continues to glow in the east. Yes, you did reduce it by 10 percent in each of the last 2 years. We suggest that you decrease it by another 20%.
And now to the $26 million increase for the school system which is above and beyond the Maintenance of Effort funding level. This punitive law, which favors education over every other service offered by the county, a law which was fought for by the unions and the entire educational establishment – well, we should give them what they so valiantly sought – funding at the Maintenance of Effort level. The $26 million increase will rebase per pupil funding upward – permanently. Please do not pander to the educational establishment. Unlike county workers, they receive better health benefits. Unlike county workers, they are not furloughed. Unlike county workers, they get an additional 2% supplement towards their pensions – the only county in Maryland that is so generous. Just heed Seneca’s words of several centuries ago: “Qui multum habet, plus cupit” (he who has much desires more). Do not go over the MoE level. You will save $26 million.
Further, we are not convinced that the $2.3 billion budget of the public schools has any objective oversight. An organization as large, expensive and complex as the MCPS needs and deserves an Inspector General reporting directly to the Board of Education. We urge you to make that happen. The MoE law does nothing to incentivize efficiencies or avoid waste; an Inspector General would.
Also we are alarmed that we have 2 classes of tax-supported workers in the county – those that work for the school system and those that work for the county government. We urge you to suggest to the school system that all new workers pay the same share of their health premiums as do county government workers. It will be a small step towards equity and would save the school system close to $2 million in the first year alone.
So what could you do with all the savings we’ve suggested? The opportunities are endless. Create jobs. Lower property taxes. Improve infrastructure. And do not forget the “the least of our brethren” – the homeless, the unemployed, the poor, the hungry, and the developmentally disabled.
Budgets are a matter of choices. You have the power- and the ability- to make good ones.
At the hearing in the County Council hearing room Gordie Brenne, Vice-Presdinet of MCTL, gave this testimony April 9, 2014:
Montgomery County Council FY 2015 Budget Testimony
Gordie Brenne – MCPS Budget, April 9, 2014
My name is Gordie Brenne, and I’m an accountant and VP of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, testifying as an individual. Thank you once again for the opportunity to testify about the MCPS budget, which I base on my red zone experience as a PTA VP for school improvement.
10%, 46%, 15%, and 4%. What do these numbers have in common? MCPS worst practices. Here’s four examples using these percentages to explain why better management, not more money is needed:
Would you buy a car from a manufacturer who has a 10% failure rate? You’re being asked to. The drop-out rate for Blacks and Hispanics in red zone high schools is 10% and is largely unchanged.
Would you build a house with a developer that has a 46% overhead rate, under a cost plus contract that automatically passes on inefficiencies? You’re being asked to. 46% of what MCPS spends is for non-instructional activities and the cost plus contract is known as Maintenance of Effort. A 2009 State Audit found that MCPS facility and transportation costs are high and this remains unresolved. Enormous base spending, leaves less incremental money for interventions.
Would you invest in a business that doesn’t have concrete objectives? You’re being asked to. No targets have been set for lowering the achievement gap, one year after the Board was tasked to do this for so called “innovation” schools. My analysis found that only 15% of the budget could be linked to academic strategies. MCPS’s own analysis could only link 25% of its proposed budget increases to strategies (Table 1A).
Would you spend more of your family’s budget on half of your kids who already exceed national averages, but less on the other half that the latest OLO Consortium report shows are substandard? You’re being asked to. Red Zone elementary teachers are paid on average 4% less. A stop gap proposal in the new budget to reward 250 “exemplary” red zone teachers leaves substandard teachers in place. Worse, this does nothing to stem the “free agency” practice that encourages exemplary teachers to transfer to the green zone for shorter work days and fewer class room interruptions.
The issue is better management, not more spending. I renew the Taxpayer League’s recommendation for an independent study of MCPS plans to lower the achievement gap. Also, every year the Council and Executive increase supplemental spending by other County agencies for educational activities. This has grown to $75 million (excluding debt service on construction and retiree benefits), and should be included in the independent study. We recommend that no increases in spending above the Maintenance of Effort minimum be approved. Thank you.
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Questions sent to Ms. Carrier in advance of the meeting of March 27, 2014:
Topic: ”Are we Truly Planning for the Future of Montgomery County″
Speaker: Francoise Carrier, Chair, Montgomery County Planning Board
1. Master Plans are suggestions or guidelines, not laws or codes. How useful are Master Plans in predicting county growth and needs 15-20 years in the future? Does the passage of time make Master Plans more relevant or less relevant?
2. How much influence do the philosophy and political leanings of the County Council have on the decisions of the Planning Board? For example, if the Council is in favor of faster growth and increased density, will the policy and decisions of the Planning Board be affected likewise?
3. How does the Planning Board incorporate the views of those residents who are for more green space and less growth with those who are for more development? Could you give us some examples?
4. Montgomery County’s property tax base is only 2/3rds of Fairfax County’s. Much of this lower tax base is due to the 93,000 acre Agricultural Reserve for which the county prides itself. What specific plans does the county have to increase our tax base so that we can reduce our reliance on income and energy taxes, as well as other, regressive revenue boosters?
5. What are the projected demographic changes (including age) for the county and how will this affect our tax base and expenditures including schools, parks, transportation?
6. If traffic congestion is any measure of planning achievements, we have some of the worst traffic in the nation. How will the building of all the residential units at the intersection of Shady Grove and I-270, the massive development approved on Crown Farm just west of the Rio in Gaithersburg, and the thousands of new homes in Clarksburg affect traffic? Does the Planning Board consider road widening prior to approving
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From the The Washington Post of March 22, 2014:
“Under pressure from the schools and teachers as he campaigns for reelection, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has proposed a budget for fiscal 2015 that would shift $26 million more to the public schools than required by the state’s so-called maintenance of effort law.”
Read the full story at The Post.
MCTL President Joan Fidler testified in Annapolis against a proposal to create a special taxing district to finance transportation needs along Rockville Pike. The League opposes this bill because it is just another way for the county to bypass the voter-approved limitations on the budget.
Her testimony on HB 1279 was given on March 6, 2014, before the House Ways and Means Committee:
I am Joan Fidler, President of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, and I am here to share with you our utter dismay and disappointment with HB 1279, Special Taxing Districts, Transportation Improvements and Exemptions from County Tax Limitations.
We register our opposition to the bill for several reasons but mainly because it provides yet another mechanism which, very subtly, does an end run around spending limits set by Montgomery County voters in 2008. It alters the definition of “cost” as it relates to taxing districts; it includes “certain” operating expenses; it allows a county (such as Montgomery) to set special rates for “any” class of property in a special taxing district and “under certain circumstances” it allows the county to set a property tax rate that is higher than the county tax limitation. But, of course, you are aware of all that.
This bill is, in effect, an insidious way to raise property taxes by cloaking it in the garb of transportation. So let’s look at the definition of “cost”; it will now include operating expenses. Let’s look at “certain” operating expenses; as we all know operating expenses like Tennyson’s brook can go on forever. So if, for example, some of our transportation projects require landscaping, the maintenance of landscaping will be an operating expense and can be added to debt service, a gift that will keep on giving for 30 years.
Next: Setting special rates for “any class of property” which will now include residential property. Will residential property owners be left holding the bag for the operational expenses of developers? Witness the special taxing district of White Flint where businesses volunteered and then reneged on paying for improvements – who stepped into the breach? Taxpayers.
But worst of all, the bill allows counties to set a property tax rate higher than the county limitation. The voters of Montgomery County expressly set a high bar for all property tax rate increases above the charter limit. This is an unconscionable attack on the express wishes of the voters of Montgomery County. Yes, we realize that most of the endorsers of this bill are from Montgomery County and we are also aware that it is our delegates who played fast and loose with charter limit rules for the flawed Maintenance of Effort law. Is it any wonder that our trust is at such a low ebb?
HB 1279 does not merely expand existing authority, it explodes it. Leave well enough alone. You just might regain our trust.
Joan Fidler, President
Montgomery County Taxpayers League
Bethesda, MD 20817
This email was sent Feb. 27, 2014, to Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp and Comptroller General Peter Franchot supporting them in their opposition to reducing the payments to the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System:
Dear Treasurer Kopp and Comptroller Franchot,
We fully support your plea to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to refrain from cutting $100 million in payments to the state retirement system. Other than a total loss of credibility by state employees of the governor, there is an even greater loss to the entire state of its credibility with the bond rating agencies. And who will pay for this reckless deferral of payment to the retirement fund? The taxpayer.
We are quite sure that you must be aware of many ways to find $100 million in a $39 billion budget. Here is a suggestion: how about cutting loose the Wall Street firm to whom we paid advisory fees of $274 million in the last fiscal year for a very disappointing rate of return. In fact, the Maryland Public Policy Institute reports that the Maryland state pension fund underperformed its entire peer group of pension funds. How about indexing the portfolio? Could we do worse?
Montgomery County Taxpayers League
The Montgomery County Taxpayers League, the Montgomery County Civic Federation and The Parents’ Coalition are sponsoring a “Budgetpalooza” on February 5, 2014 from 7-9 pm at the Rockville Memorial Library, 21 Maryland Avenue, Rockville, MD. Volunteers will make presentations on each chapter of the Superintendent’s proposed FY 2015 MCPS budget. Everyone Is welcome.
The Great Montgomery Hackathon, sponsored by the Montgomery County Civic Federation and the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, takes place Saturday and Sunday, February 8-9, 2014. It will focus on Transit, Demographics and Public Information.
It will be held at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, 4805 Edgemoor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814.
We’ll be bringing together developers, designers, engaged citizens and more to work on projects that have a positive impact on the county.
In order to maximize the efficiency of the hackathon, the Montgomery County Civic Federation worked with local civic organizations to identify three projects to focus on:
Transit – Help build a multilingual mobile web app that will help people find Ride On bus stops as quickly and easily as possible.
Demographics – Create a tool to help people locate important areas and locations on a map and find out the demographic makeup of the area using data from the US Census Bureau.
- Public Information – Start a service that will help people submit Maryland Public Information Act requests (the Maryland version of FOIA requests) and track the responses, opening up them up to the public.
9am – 10am: light breakfast and coffee
10am – 11am: welcome and project introductions
11am – 3pm: working!
3pm – 4pm: afternoon checkup and project statuses
- 5pm: wrap-up for the day
9am – 10am: light breakfast and coffee
10am – 10:30am: welcome and recap of Saturday
10:30am – 2pm: working!
2pm – 3pm: project review, next steps, and wrap-up
For complete information go here.
Questions sent to Mr. Rice in advance of the meeting of Jan. 16, 2014:
Topic: ” The Financial Picture for Montgomery County in 2014″
Speaker: Craig Rice, President, Montgomery County Council
1. As this is an election year and though fiscal projections for the year, while they have improved, continue to prove challenging, how do you think taxpayers will fare versus powerful special interests? Will there be a trend upward or downward for property taxes and energy taxes? Do you foresee any new taxes or fees in the offing?
2. Constrained as we are by the Maintenance of Effort law, fully funding the MCPS at the state-mandated level would require a reduction in spending for all the rest of the services provided by the county government. How much is this reduction projected to be? How do you plan to meet the increasing demand for services by the poor, the disadvantaged, and the unemployed? For instance, it was recently noted that the county paid over $ 650,000 to cover permanent housing costs for 15 homeless people? How will you continue to meet such and other needs, cover wage increases for county employees and maintain the current quality of services while balancing the budget?
3. A recent report by the Maryland Public Policy Institute claimed that Maryland state and local governments carry nearly $28 billion in unfunded retiree health obligations. For Anne Arundel county, the number is $1 billion creating an exploding health benefits liability. What is the number for Montgomery County and how are we addressing the issue?
4. (a) The Homeowners Property Tax Credit is a means-tested tax credit. It is our understanding that a very small percentage, perhaps 20%, of eligible residents claim the credit. How do you spread information about this tax credit to all eligible homeowners? With more residents aging in place all of whom face increasing property taxes many with fixed incomes, how do you plan to publicize the program and should the means-testing be updated to reflect reality?
(b) For years the Homestead Tax Credit has been 10% for Montgomery County homeowners, the maximum allowed by law. Only a few jurisdictions have the 10% with a vast majority having a much lower percentage. Would you consider reducing this percentage to 5% over five years noting that the real estate market is increasing and in many areas of the county has increased much more than 10%?
5. Given your experience as a delegate to Annapolis, how can you ensure that our current representatives to the State legislature look out for the fiscal interests of Montgomery County? For instance, could the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs publish the voting records of our delegation on the county website? The State website is not user-friendly.
6. Several years ago, there were reports in the press that some elected officials were in arrears on their state and federal taxes. As the Taxpayers League, we believe that all taxpayers should be current on their tax obligations. How can the taxpayers of the county be assured that all elected officials in the county are current on their tax obligations? Is this currently covered under financial disclosure requirements or ethics laws?
From the County Executive’s proposed FY2015 Budget (p. 16):
“However, expenditures are estimated to grow by specific major known commitments of $132 million, illustrating the costs and challenges that exist in the budget, producing a budget gap of $166 million that must be closed by March 15th.
“Because of State law requiring a certain level of funding for MCPS and Montgomery College, County Government and Park and Planning could sustain reductions of nearly 3%.”
The required “level of funding” is the Mainenance of Effort law. When the bill was proposed in Annapolis, our County Council and County Executive strongly opposed it, warning of the financial burden it would place on our county. However, all 24 county Delegates and 7 of our 8 Senators (except for Sen. Brian Frosh) voted for the proposal.
Read the full document.