ANNAPOLIS – With both county and state budgets projecting deficits, Montgomery County legislators entering the upcoming General Assembly session are willing to make sacrifices. But some in the delegation are worried that the belt tightening may be too painful.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, who also represents part of Montgomery. In the 1991 budget crunch, he said, legislators socked counties with a lot of expenses.
“They made them pay for their own teacher Social Security,” Kittleman said. “This time, the budget deficit is worse than that and the (counties) need to be prepared to fight.”
Maryland’s economy is ailing from the effects of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, led by the need to shore up security. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has ordered more than $200 million in money-saving measures over the next two years, including a hiring freeze.
Montgomery County is in a similar situation.
Preliminary projections indicate the county could face a budget shortfall of more than $200 million next year.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in his state of the county address ordered departments to reduce budgets by 5 percent. He also ordered an immediate hiring freeze to help the county conserve funds.
County legislators are preparing to make even more tough decisions.
“We are going to have to do a lot of cutting,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D- Montgomery, a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.
Ruben, who is Senate chairwoman of the Montgomery County delegation, said Maryland’s budget shortfalls will impact almost all areas of the state. But she worries that because Montgomery County is one of Maryland’s more affluent jurisdictions, it may be asked to bear more of the burden.
“Certain people think Montgomery County is wealthy enough to pick up the tab for some jurisdictions. But we have poor children and people with special needs in our county and their obligations need to be met,” Ruben said.
“Just because we are wealthy does not mean we should be faced with an overbearing burden,” she said. “It costs a lot of money to live in Montgomery.”
Mental health and education funding lead the delegation’s agenda.
Mental health clinics say they’re paid late and at low reimbursement rates, at the same time they face increased administrative costs resulting from the move to more of a managed-care system.
Early this year the county’s largest mental health care provider, CPC Health Inc., declared bankruptcy.
Emergency funds were used to prevent other clinics from closing, but legislative delegates wonder how long those measures will last.
The picture for education is not as bleak. Nearly 137,000 students are enrolled in 190 Montgomery County public schools, and the county spends more money on its pupils than any other jurisdiction.
But delegation members are balking at County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and his $1.4 billion budget, a $71 million increase from last year.
Delegation members will also battle over how to meet new recommendations by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, which is suggesting the state increase funding for education by $1 billion.
“We shouldn’t have to make shortsighted cuts like in education or mental health. There is a lot of pressure to make cuts in education when we really need to spend more,” said Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery.
Because of the budget crunch, Van Hollen said there is pressure to make cutbacks across the board. As a result he is fearful the emergency state of mental health will not be addressed.
“The people who are the neediest will feel the cutbacks, especially in mental health. If we don’t address their needs it will cost more in the long run.”