Montgomery County Taxpayers League

The Voice of Taxpayers of Montgomery County, Maryland

Public Schools

Testimony before the County Council on the Proposed FY 2019 Budget

Testimony before the County Council on the Proposed FY 2019 Budget

April 11, 2018

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the proposed FY 2019 budget. I am Joan Fidler, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League.

I’d like to note that this is very definitely a $5.56 billion election year budget – no property tax increases and a decrease in the property tax rate. And kudos to the County Executive for increasing the county’s reserve fund to $492 million.

And now a cautionary note: income taxes continue to be volatile. We ask that despite pleas from many for “more money, more money, more money” that the only exceptions be for the most vulnerable in the county – the working poor, the homeless, veterans and the developmentally disabled.

Next, we believe it is extremely short-sighted and somewhat reckless to reduce the county’s contribution to the employee retirement fund by $21 million – let us not mortgage our future.

Regarding our public schools where funding has been proposed at $19 million over the mandated what we call the Maintenance of Emolument level, we ask that you require the school system to provide you with the specific goals that they plan to achieve along with performance measures and timelines. If they are unable to do so, then taxpayers are funding a budget of $2.59 billion with results of which we are unaware. The school system does have a strategic plan that I would describe as more poetry than prose.

And here are two ideas: (1) that MCPS establish at least one charter school, perhaps in easy county, focused entirely on innovation – perhaps one that attempts new ways to narrow the achievement gap, and (2) that MCPS establish an Inspector General position reporting directly to the Board of Education – MCPS is too large a system to be run by bureaucrats with no “lean, mean junkyard dog” overseeing its operations, and more important, its performance. The Board alone cannot do it.

And now to job creation. Our increase in job growth has been, let me understate this, abysmal. According to BLS, the growth of establishments in Montgomery County between 2011 and 2016 was SIX! We were dead last in the Washington region. Is the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation really succeeding?

I end on a somewhat nostalgic note as this is the last time I will be testifying on the budget before this particular County Council. Four of you will not have to sit through such hearings again. And so we at the Taxpayers League wish council members Berliner, Elrich, Floreen and Leventhal the very best as you move on to other pursuits.

Thank you.

Questions prospective voters could ask candidates for county and state office.

Many voters have asked us to come up with thoughtful questions that they could ask of candidates for local and state offices.  Too often we hear the same promises of greater support for schools, better transportation and lower taxes.  But very little is said about how a candidate intends to achieve these goals.  Our questions below are designed for voters to ask candidates directly so they can get a specific answer as to how the candidates intend to fulfill their promises.

 

County Level:

1.  Now that debt service accounts for 10% percent of the county budget and is for all intents and purposes at its ceiling, how would you address school construction needs?

2.  The Department of Liquor Control is run by the county government and handles the purchase, warehousing and sale of liquor bringing in $28 million in revenue in a $5.5 billion county budget.  Do you believe that the county government should employ 442 county staff and cover their salaries and benefits or does this function belong in the private sector?

3.  The County Executive’s budget proposal for FY 2019 gives the school system $2.59 billion of which $19 million is over and above the mandated Maintenance of Effort level.

–  Do you believe that the school system, while it describes how it will spend the increase, should also show how the increase will produce results?  How would we know that such results have been achieved?

  • 45% of the MCPS budget is overhead (non-instruction), Should MCPS cut overhead costs before it gets an increase in county funding? By how much?
  • Public school budgets are created by non-elected public employees without formal input from the taxpaying public.  What would you do to make the taxpayers feel more confident that the schools are spending their tax dollars wisely? Is it time for an Inspector General for MCPS that would look not only at waste, fraud and abuse but also at program performance?

4.  According to Maryland’s State Department of Assessments and Taxation, there were just 19 new filing for new businesses in Montgomery County in FY16. In the year before there were 57 new business filings in the county. What specifically would you do, at the county level, to encourage business growth in Montgomery County?

5. In addition to reduced income tax forecasts, recordation/transfer and energy taxes are forecast to be lower than expected over the next 5 years.  What are some of the programs or services where you would reduce spending to balance the budget?

6.  County employees will get a 2% cost-of-living increase along with a 3.5% “step” increase in FY 2019.  Do you believe this comports with wages in the private sector in Montgomery County?

7. It has been said that collective bargaining gives unions an unfair advantage in arbitration, leading to pay raises way above market and the highest paid employees in the region.  Would you support changing the arbitration rules? Also would you support more transparency in collective bargaining negotiations so that the public is aware of the “going in” positions of labor and management and is allowed to express their opinions at a public hearing before the agreement is finalized?

8. County income taxes have varied significantly from forecast for the last 2 years.  Property taxes are less volatile, but stagnant, and subject to Charter limits.  Would you support increasing property taxes on home improvements by treating them as “new construction” and thus gaining more for the county in property taxes – without Charter limit restrictions? In other words, do you support the inequity of property owners of unimproved properties supporting those who have made major improvements to theirs?

9.  WSSC, the largest monopoly in the state of Maryland, has prepared a six-year fiscal plan that requires 6% rate increases to maintain the debt service it has accrued to meet its net revenues.  WSSC also has ad valorem taxing authority to raise county property taxes. What oversight would you propose to make WSSC an efficient and effective monopoly to avoid these annual rate increases or even an increase in property taxes? 

10. What specific experience do you bring to the office to which you wish to be elected which demonstrates your development or implementation of a program in the public sector.

State Level

1.  The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System has $20 billion in unfunded liabilities.  The last time the State fully funded the system was in 2000.  Further, the State pays $500 million a year to financial management firms to manage pension investments at no higher a return than low-cost index funds.  Should we continue to pay out $500 million a year to these firms?

2.  For every $1 that Montgomery County taxpayers send to Annapolis, we get 20 cents in return in direct aid.  Howard County, a wealthier county than ours gets 24 cents on every dollar.  How would you get us, at least, to Howard County levels?

3.  Our delegates to Annapolis inform us, every year, that they have passed a “balanced” budget.  True, in one sense.  However it excludes long-term liabilities which in pensions alone exceed 10s of billions.  How would you provide transparency in budgeting?

4. According to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation there were just nineteen new business filings in Montgomery County in FY16.  In the year before, there were 57 new business filings in the county.  What specifically would you do, at the state level, to encourage more business growth in the county?

5. Would you support Maryland Public Service Commission oversight of the WSSC, the largest monopoly in Maryland? Would you support privatizing the WSSC?

6. Do you favor the modernization of the state’s laws governing breweries? Breweries—most of which are small businesses—are limited to 2,000 barrels of beer they can sell to visitors in their tasting rooms. They can sell an additional 1000 barrels but only by adhering to a “buy back” provision requiring that they sell the extra beer to a distributor and then buy back their very own beer. This puts our breweries at a competitive disadvantage regarding surrounding states and hinders job growth and the concomitant increased tax revenue.

Next Meeting: Monday, April 9, 2018 – 7:30 – 9:30 pm

 Montgomery County Taxpayers League

 in partnership with

 Montgomery County Civic Federation

 

Monday, April 9, 2018  –  7:30 – 9:30 pm

Lobby Level Auditorium, Executive Office Building

101 Monroe Street, Rockville, MD 20850
PLEASE NOTE NEW TIME AND VENUE

Free and open to the public

                                                                       

Topic:   “ The Taxpayers’ Take on the FY 2019 Montgomery County Budget”
 
Speaker:  Alexandre Espinosa, Director, Department of Finance,  Montgomery County Government
 
The meeting will start with a presentation of the taxpayers’ view of the budget followed by a Q and A session with the Director, Department of Finance, Montgomery County.  Please bring your questions to the meeting. 

 

County Debt Is Serious Problem

From The Seventh State of February 21, 2018:bethesdamagazine.com:

“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.” 

 

Accountability in Education Act: MCTL View

 

Testimony sent to the Senate Education, Health and Environment Affairs Committee

SB 302 – Accountability in Education Act of 2018

February 8, 2018

The Montgomery County Taxpayers League supports SB 302 – but with major reservations. The premise of the bill makes eminent good sense – the establishment of an Investigator General (IG) at the state level. No such investigatory body exists at present and oversight suffers. However, there are some problems with the bill.

  1. We do not see the need – nor the expense – of setting up a whole new commission with all its trappings to select the IG and to whom the IG will report. We have a State Board of Education that could very well fill that role. The Educational Monitoring Unit could be housed either in the Maryland State Department of Education or could be situated within the State Board with the investigative and analytical functions listed in the bill.
  1. Other than sub poena powers, we are not sure as to why many of the other functions are not currently being performed by the MSDE or through the oversight of the State Board.
  1. How will the functions of this new entity comport with those of the various boards of education in the state who currently perform many of the same functions. Will IG decisions over-ride personnel decisions protected by local collective bargaining agreements? Will corrective actions mandated by the IG be funded by the state?
  1. Will it benefit the Investigator General to support the establishment of inspectors general in the larger school districts? Should local jurisdictions elect to do so, will the state fund the establishment of these positions?

It appears to us that the premise of the bill is worthwhile; the creation of yet another free-floating commission is not. The tightening of oversight is worthwhile; the overreach in some of the functions is not. And lastly, though the bill does not intimate it, the establishment of inspectors general in some school systems would strengthen local oversight – and lighten the work load of the proposed Investigator General.

Joan Fidler, President

Montgomery County Taxpayers League

 

“Setting the Record Straight on MCPS Funding”

From Seventh State, Oct. October 13, 2017, a letter to the editor from Nancy Floreen, a member of the Montgomery County Council:

Were the preceding seven years really a period of “austerity” for MCPS and “lavish” times for others?  Consider the facts….

2. During the worst years of the recession, FY09-12, only two agencies – MCPS and Montgomery College – saw increased funding. To be sure, the increases were small (1.8 and 3.2 percent, respectively) and relied on higher State aid. But during this same period, vital County functions like Police, Fire and Rescue, and HHS were down 3.4, 5.0, and 14.7 percent, respectively.  Recreation was down 23.5 percent, and Libraries was down 29.2 percent.”

And here’s the response to Ms. Floreen’s letter:

“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.”

 

County, Schools Arrive At Plan For Fully Funding Schools’ Budget

From BethesdaBeat.com May 15, 2017:

“The Montgomery County Council agreed to supply the county’s public schools with $1.663 billion during fiscal 2018, enough when combined with state and federal aid to cover the $2.522 billion spending plan backed by the school board….The $1.663 billion funding level suggested by the county executive is about $19 million above the state-required minimum…The council is expected to finalize the MCPS budget later this month.”

Notes from the meeting of March 22, 2017

Topic: “The FY 2018 Montgomery County Budget and what it means for County Residents”

Speaker:   Jennifer Hughes, Director
Office of Management and Budget, Montgomery County

Wed., March 22, 2017  –  7:00 – 9:00 pm
Council Office Bldg. (3rd Fl. Conf. Rm.), 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville, MD 20850

Free and open to the public

Here are the 9 questions sent to the speaker in advance of the meeting and the answers supplied by the speaker at the meeting:

Q1.  Moody Analytics predicts that reductions outlined so far by the Trump administration would reduce employment in our region by 1.8%, personal income by 3.5% and lower home prices by 1.9%.  These reductions might affect Montgomery County even harder given the presence of several federal agencies and tens of thousands of employees in the county.  The budget has been touted as a “cautious” budget.  Is there room in this budget to handle what could be deep cuts later in the year?

A1. The proposed Federal budget suggests major cuts in Federal programs and employment, which will affect the county significantly. The county is home to many Federal agencies (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, National Institutes of Health, etc.). There are approximately 50,000 federal employees in Montgomery County. The county has not made any serious efforts to analyze the effects of the Federal budget so far and will wait until the federal budget picture becomes clearer.

Q2.  Can you discuss the major sources of revenue for the County, and comment on the percentage contribution of each and their volatility (unpredictability) for the last 5 years?  Are the revenue projections that underlie this budget realistic?  How so?

A2. The major source of revenue is property tax which accounts for $1.8 B (28.7%) of total revenue followed by income tax of $1.6 B ( 25.3%) and Intergovernmental which is State and Federal funds of $1.1 B almost all of which goes to the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The rest of the revenue pie consists of transfer and recordation taxes, charges for services, fines and miscellaneous and other taxes.

As to revenue projections, so far these projections have been valid.

The county’s bond rating has remained at AAA, the highest possible, allowing the county to borrow at a rate less than 1 percent. Much of the bond revenue goes to finance capital projects such as school buildings and police and fire stations.

The County Executive’s highest priorities are education and public safety. For FY 2018, 49.6% of the budget is for MCPS 12.2% for public safety and 8.4% for debt service.

Q3.   What did the property tax increase of last year actually accomplish?  Could you list the programs towards which this increase was applied and did these programs achieve the ends for which they were intended?  Given that the tax increase raised the base for these programs, how are these funds being spent in the FY 2018 budget or are these funds being used elsewhere?  

A3. Most of the tax increase went to MCPS where the Maintenance of Effort funding has remained static for at least 5 years. The increased funding was able to decrease class size by 1, though the results of reducing class size will take some time to show up.

For FY 2018, the County Executive has recommended that the property tax rate be decreased but because property values are going up, there will be a small increase in property tax revenue.

Q4.   When will we see a sunset of the energy tax which we were promised was temporary with a 2-year life ending in 2012? It is now 2017 and the energy tax lives on.  It is true that the County Council has reduced it somewhat by nibbling at the edges but the promise has not been kept.  What gives?

A4. The energy tax increase, enacted in 2010 brings in over $200 million in revenue. One advantage of this tax is that it is very broad and includes entities that pay very little or no tax such as the Federal Government and non-profit groups. There will be a problem if this tax is reduced or eliminated as it currently funds many programs. While the speaker did not address this, it is clear that a tax, once levied never goes away as this “temporary” tax increase now funds permanent programs.

Q5.  What is the rationale for increasing the MCPS budget above the maintenance of effort level, after the huge increase provided last year?  In the absence of a strategic plan to close the achievement gap, how is the Executive assured that continuing the extra spending will make a difference in academic performance?  How much of the increase for MCPS is directly related to employee salaries and benefits?

A5. About half the county budget goes to MCPS which has grown by 2,000 new students annually over the last several years. Of the entire State student population, Montgomery County accounts for 30% of the increase every year; which is the equivalent of one high school per year. This increase in student population is more than that of any of the other 23 school districts in the State. A question was raised that it appears that 25,000 of our total student population are undocumented. The number was said to be highly suspect as there are only 23,000 students in the system who qualify as English for Speakers of Other languages (ESOL)and this includes those who are here legally.

The MCPS budget is supplemented by over $250 million in additional county funds that are used for police officers in schools, nurses, health aides, debt service for school construction, IT modernization, etc. This funding does not appear in the MCPS budget.

Q6.   Given that 70+% of the county budget funds county salaries and benefits, what is the pay raise this year and how much will this pay raise alone increase pension costs over the next 10 years?  Given the collective bargaining process where the unions are much more successful in bargaining than the Administration and given the tilted playing field of arbitration, is there a likelihood that the County Executive will push to change the arbitration process that failed in the Council last year? 

A6. The pay raise for fire, police and Montgomery County Government staff is 2% for COLA, 3.5% for within-grade increases and 3.5 % for longevity. This was questioned by audience members as excessive compared to the private sector in the county.

As to the collective bargaining process and the need for public participation at least at the stage of “opening offers” and later before the “final” decision, the response was that the public might not find the process too interesting.

Q7.  Would the county consider including civics/citizens groups in the budget formulation process so that ordinary citizens and taxpayers have greater input into how their money is spent?  Also, has the County considered asking for representation in the budget formulation process for MCPS, given that it is close to half of the entire County budget.

A7. The County Executive has been very transparent and has held many meetings open to the public where he has listened to the public’s ideas on the budget. The question was raised as to why there could not be civic representation in the budget formulation process at the agency level before decisions were made by OMB and the County Executive. It was suggested to the speaker that public input could be useful in setting performance measures for the budget year linked to strategies and spending. Most performance measures are “outputs” and not “outcomes”. A discussion ensued as to whether county programs are developed and funded without performance measures established at the outset.

Q8.  The County Executive supported a 4.5% salary increase last year for the WSSC, a $1 billion bi-county enterprise with little oversight and no Inspector General.   In light of a benchmarking study last summer that showed higher than necessary staffing, and weak controls over high fixed cost reliability of service activities, and water rates that are much higher than Fairfax County for residences and businesses, how does the Executive justify a 3.5% spending increase this year.   Why is there not a freeze on spending until new cost controls are implemented?

A8. The WSSC is a bi-county organization which means that both counties have to agree on the budget proposed by the WSSC. If there is no agreement, the budget as proposed by the WSSC goes into effect automatically. Also there is quite a bit of oversight in existence at present by 4 entities – each of the county executives for Montgomery County and Prince George’s County as well as the county councils of both counties.

Q9.   Does every major department in the County Government have a strategic plan in place?  For those that have such plans, why can’t the published budget for the department include a cross-walk of the budget request to the strategic plan so that the public can see how much planned spending is related to strategies, how cost-effective those strategies are, and how much spending is for non-strategic programs and overhead activities?

A9. Will think about it.

“Will the Montgomery County delegation fight for us?”

From “The Seventh State“:

“In 2010, almost all MoCo state legislators promised to oppose a shift in their election campaigns.  But just two years later, Governor Martin O’Malley proposed a partial pension funding shift, backed by both the Speaker and the Senate President, and most MoCo lawmakers voted to support it.  The cost of the shift to the Montgomery County Government increased steadily from $27 million in FY 2013 to $59 million this year, with $6 million offset by the state….. MoCo taxpayers get back just 24 cents for every dollar in taxes they pay to the state.  The state average for all residents is 42 cents.”

Questions for the meeting of December 14, 2016

Topic: “The FY 2018 Proposed Budget for the Montgomery County Public Schools

Speaker:   Dr. Jack Smith, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools

Dec. 14, 2016 — Free and open to the public — 6-7:30 pm. —  Rockville Public Library

  The following questions have been sent to Dr. Smith in advance of the meeting

1.  What are the costs related to the top three academic strategies – Achievement Gap, 21st Century Education and Special Education for FY 2018.  What percentage of increased spending is for these 3 strategies? 

2.  Data from prior superintendents and reports by the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) show that MCPS has expended an additional $2,000 per student annually in “targeted” elementary schools to reduce class size and provide supports to low-income learners.  However the achievement gap by student race, ethnicity and income continues to persist and has widened on several measures of college readiness, such as SAT and ACT performance.   How many schools did not meet district-wide performance targets?  Have you set improvement goals for these schools for FY 2018?  As you have highlighted narrowing the achievement gap as a major goal, would you consider sponsoring an independent review by outside specialists of gap closing strategies to determine which approaches are cost-effective – with a report to the public?

3.  Will you consider charter schools as a means of closing the achievement gap?  A review of Baltimore schools in Freddy Gray’s Sandtown neighborhood showed a charter school (Empowerment Academy) not only out-performed his public school (New Song), but out-performed two elementary (Greencastle and Strathmore) and two middle schools with high FARMS rates in Montgomery County – Benjamin Bannecker and Argyle. (see 5/18/15 study posted on MCTL web site).

4.  Will you use Department of Education standards to decide if there is reasonable evidence to deploy a program countywide.  For instance have the Choice Program and the Middle School Magnet Consortium met their performance goals?  If yes, will they be expanded? Will you reprogram funds if goals for these and other programs are are not reached? 

5.  Are performance target improvements planned for special education students in FY 2018 separate from the at risk population at large? How do the marginal costs to achieve these improvements compare to the marginal costs for at risk students in the general student population for the same measures?

6.   Given that the mandated Maintenance of Effort law may not be able to cover both the program needs of our school children and the salaries and benefits of staff which account for 90 percent of the MCPS budget, will you rein in labor contracts so that teacher’s salaries and benefits match more reasonably with their counterparts in Howard and Fairfax counties?

7.  How does your FY 2018 budget manage non-instruction overhead ?  Have you considered benchmarking this against other school systems?  For example, the overhead rate at large school districts in California average 32%.  For MCPS it was 45%  in FY 2017.  Lowering this overhead could result in the hiring of thousands more teachers to lower class size and narrow the achievement gap.  Will you use the expertise of the business community to advise on administrative costs?  Will you consider consolidating administrative functions with those of the Montgomery County government.

8.   Language immersion programs are very popular and wildly over-subscribed.  To open the program to a larger school audience, have you considered innovative solutions such as partnering with universities that provide video classroom learning in a wide range of languages.