Speaking before hundreds of County residents at the Silver Spring Civic Building Wednesday night, County Executive Ike Leggett said that, “the state of Montgomery County is strong – and growing stronger. We all are fortunate to live in one of the nation’s best places to raise a family, get an education, earn a living and build a business. Most of America would change places with us in a heartbeat.”
“We have navigated through a mighty economic storm, one that ravaged our nation and, yes, deeply affected us,” Leggett told the crowd, “but for all of these challenges, the job market is expanding, our foundation is strong again, and our public school system is excelling as we pass the one million mark in population.”
Leggett outlined public-private partnerships underway to take the County’s biotechnology and life sciences sector to the “next level.”
“Between the Great Seneca Science Corridor, the White Oak Science Gateway and the White Flint Plan, we will help create at least 100,000 new, quality jobs in Montgomery County,” said Leggett.
The Executive unveiled new initiatives that make the County more “business-friendly,” shorten or do away with waiting lists for adult English-language instruction, and boost after-school programs.
With a nod to the 2010 census that showed Montgomery as a “majority minority” County for the first time, Leggett emphasized how the County’s future is tied to its diversity.
“A welcoming attitude plus a strong economy, a quality environment, and an outstanding school system makes Montgomery County a magnet for talented people from every corner of the globe,” said Leggett. “Without the energy and intellect and innovation of our immigrant community, Montgomery County would, quite simply, be incomplete. ‘New Americans’ are a critical piece in building a better future for all County residents.”
Leggett reviewed the hard choices he made over the past six years to put Montgomery County’s fiscal house in order, closing $2.6 billion in budget shortfalls and going five years with a zero increase in tax-supported County spending. Prior to his assuming office, County spending had increased an astounding 42 percent over the previous four years.
“Even before the recession hit, that was, quite simply, unsustainable,” Leggett said. “We were living beyond our means.”
Leggett described the challenges of unsustainable increases in County spending that resulted in multi-billion dollar structural budget gaps; the national recession that reduced revenues while increasing demands on the safety net for those most in need; a growing student population; and decisions on the federal and state levels that shifted even greater burdens onto Montgomery County.
He explained that, “During the past six years, County taxpayers and employees shared in sacrifices needed to remedy budget gaps. Many already financially strapped residents have had to pay a little more in taxes, while receiving somewhat less in some services. Dedicated County employees have suffered layoffs and furloughs, while receiving no cost-of-living increases for four years and paying a larger share of their own health care and retirement costs.
“I recommended and implemented a plan that eliminated 10 percent of the County government’s positions. All these choices pained me greatly, but they were the right decisions for Montgomery County.
“Because we battened down the hatches and overhauled basic functions, our County has come through the storm. We maintained our coveted Triple-A bond rating, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in borrowing costs every year. We are holding the line on property taxes at the Charter level.
“I have worked aggressively to increase reserves to better protect the County if we face budget shortfalls in the future. We have, for the first time, allocated far more resources in advance to meet weather-related emergencies. I also developed a prudent plan that established a trust fund that sets aside tens of millions of dollars. This fund will help meet the anticipated health care obligations for retired employees, thereby averting a potentially huge financial crisis for the County in years to come.
“While we were putting our fiscal house in order, we were also working to make sure we were in a strong position to rebound once recovery started to happen. Take a look at how our balanced approach to addressing these difficulties has helped bring us out of the worst of the economic crisis:
- “Despite the lingering recession, over the last three years we have seen a 3.4 percent increase in jobs in the County.
- “Our unemployment rate has dropped by 15 percent over the last two years.
- “The construction of new residential units in Montgomery County increased by over 150 percent over the last three years.
- “Non-residential construction starts – and their value – have doubled between 2009 and 2012.
- “Median home prices are up about five percent in the last year.
- “And, the value of taxable property – the County’s tax base – increased by almost 30 percent in the last five years.
“The numbers that we want to go up are going up – and the numbers we want to go down are going down. I call that progress.”
Leggett explained that continued economic growth will depend on ensuring that the transportation system meets the County’s needs now and in the future. He said that three major transportation projects must be built within the next decade to achieve this goal: the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway and a Rapid Transit Vehicle system. To pay for these critical projects, Leggett has advocated for an increase in the State’s gasoline tax, and today testified in Annapolis in favor of proposed legislation to do so.
“Several years ago,” he said, “I virtually stood alone in advocating for an increase in the State’s gasoline tax. It wasn’t popular then, and it isn’t popular now. But we needed it then, and we still need it now. In fact, we need an increase in transportation revenue now more than ever before.
“That’s why I call upon the State Legislature to do the difficult thing, the courageous thing, the necessary thing and the right thing: Pass an increase in the State’s gasoline tax, now. It hasn’t been increased since 1992 –when George Bush Senior was President. This will help replenish the State’s Transportation Trust Fund and assist counties throughout the State to advance major transportation infrastructure.”
Leggett also highlighted results that showed the value of County investment in public safety and human services:
- From 2007 through 2011, crime in Montgomery County fell by nearly 19 percent, and serious crime was down almost 25 percent.
- The number of homeless in the County fell by 13 percent in the last year.
- Gang-related crime fell by almost 50 percent between 2007 and 2012.
- County fire deaths dropped from 13 in 2009 to two in 2012.
- Fire response times decreased over the last four years by more than two minutes and, for the most serious fires, response times dropped from an average of 7.2 minutes to less than three minutes.
- County pedestrian fatalities were reduced from a high of 19 in 2008 to six in 2012 and collisions were reduced by 72 percent within a quarter-mile of schools under the “Safe Routes to Schools” program.
He proposed three new initiatives to better prepare the County for the future:
- To further close the achievement gap, a new Partnership for Educational Achievement will extend the successful “Excel Beyond the Bell” after-school program to summertime in all County middle schools where it already exists, with a goal of extending “Excel” to all County middle schools in the future. Leggett also proposed continued investment in collaboration projects, such as the innovative effort in Kennedy High School, that address non-academic barriers to learning.
- English Language on Demand will invest in shortening and ultimately eliminating waiting lists for County adults seeking to learn English, ensuring that every adult in the County who wants to learn English has the opportunity to do so.
- The “Open for Business” initiative will simplify the development process in the County by implementing improvements recommended by a stakeholder group to streamline requirements, reduce the time it takes for projects to be built and lower costs for everyone.
But Leggett doesn’t want to stop there. Leggett asked, “Do we need a cumbersome State/County planning review model that was adopted close to the turn of the century? Beyond that, we need to ask: Do we really need three transportation reviews? Do we really need three environmental reviews cutting across several different agencies?
“Now is the time,” he said, “for all of the County’s outside agencies and County government to put everything on the table. Let’s keep what’s working – and build on that. And, get rid of what doesn’t work.”
Leggett closed his address by returning to Montgomery’s strengths.
“We have accomplished a great deal thus far by working together,” he said. “But much remains to be done.
“The new economy – and the new America – places a premium on Montgomery County’s greatest strengths -- who we are, what we know and what we can do.
“The ‘Knowledge Economy’ favors those who can work with different people, in different environments, with different cultures - who can do difficult things, and who can make products and provide services that are in demand in distant ports of call.
“And, that’s who we are. We are Montgomery County. And, thanks to our collective efforts, our ship is heading straight into the future – ever stronger for the challenges we faced.”
Leggett will send his proposed fiscal year 2014 operating budget to the County Council on March 15.
# # #
The full State of the County speech is available on the County’s website.