BETHESDA — The Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board (WMCCAB) met on May 7 to learn more about the county’s budget and capital improvement programs for the area.
Naeem Mia, policy analyst of the Montgomery County Office of Management and Budget (OMB), briefed the board on the 2020 proposed budget and outlined what challenges the county faced trying to balance it.
Mia said that the county is focused on reaching financial stability in the coming years.
“We need to focus on reigning in our debt curve on our use of debt services,” he explained.
Debt services are funds that the county draws from to pay for service work. For instance, according to OMB, paying the contractor who fixes the pot holes on a residential street or the construction worker who is doing renovations on a county library would come from the debt services portion of the budget.
Mia said that one of the challenges in balancing a budget is a volatility in tax revenues. The county’s operating budget receives most of its revenues through taxes; in fact, according to OMB. $4 billion in revenues come from taxes on county residents. The next largest source of revenues is intergovernmental, such as basic state aid and federal grants. But that category accounts for only $1.18 billion in revenues. That is to say, much of the county’s financial stability relies on taxes from residents.
So, when tax revenue is volatile, so, too, is attempting to balance the budget.
Mia said that this is especially true this year, since President Trump’s federal tax law came into effect.
An extra layer of financial uncertainty results from the court case of Comptroller of the Treasury of Maryland v. Wynne, a 2015 Supreme Court case, according to Mia.
The court found that Maryland’s personal income tax organization, which taxes income that residents make both in the state of Maryland and out of state, violates the Commerce Clause and is unconstitutional. In other words, Maryland was not providing residents with credit against taxes that they must pay to other states.
Maryland will need to begin paying back the extra taxes to residents in 2021, according to Mia.
Montgomery County will be hit especially hard in paying back residents, because that is where the majority of out-of-state business took place.
Mia explained that the county will need to pay back an estimated $28.6 million per year from 2021 to 2026.
The board also heard updates from county officials. Debbie Szyfer, who serves as a senior facilities planner at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), gave updates on school facilities.
“We’ve got projects finishing up at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School currently, and we’re monitoring growth at the Walter Johnson cluster of schools,” Szyfer said.
She said that other priorities for MCPS include maintaining existing school facilities and looking at expansion for schools that are becoming overcrowded.
Szyfer received some pushback from community members when discussing the issue of overcrowding in school facilities.
“Our concerns are really that most of our schools are already pretty overcrowded,” said Katya Marin, a member of WMCCAB. “Most of our schools are smaller, and so they don’t have the same capacity for a lot of kids. But this area, in the Walter Johnson cluster, in the Bethesda cluster, there’s high development, and they’re on a mission to create more housing — which is great, but the disconnect is with the forecasting.”
Marin said that she and other parents are especially concerned about inaccurate predictions, as to how many students will be attending local schools in the coming years.
In fact, a number of local parents, along with Marin, sent a letter in February to the Board of Education outlining their concerns.
“Housing stock numbers used in the consultant’s forecasting models were drawn from 2016 data provided by the Planning Department. Therefore, it appears that known pipeline data for development projects approved in 2017 and 2018 have not been included in enrollment projections. In the Walter Johnson cluster alone, this potentially results in hundreds of kids being excluded in the numbers,” they wrote.
Szyfer stated that there isn’t a need for an additional school at this point.
“You need about 1,200 students for a middle school, and if we don’t have the students, we can’t justify dedicating a site for a new school,” she said.
Marin added that if officials think the county doesn’t need another school now to ease overcrowding. the worry becomes that the county isn’t using accurate data.
“It’s not just that they’re looking 15 years out, but that their forecasts for those 15 years isn’t right,” Marin said.
The WMCCAB meets once a month at the BCC Regional Service Center.