My budget priorities

Dear Resident:

The County’s budget for the next year is done. There is good news to share, as well as unfinished business.

Our budget process has two stages. The Executive prepares a draft and submits it by March 15. The Council then makes changes and finalizes the budget by the end of May.

Here are some of my highlights from this year, reflecting my own priorities.

Starting with education, we fully funded the MCPS budget request, thanks particularly to an increase in state funding. We also fully funded Montgomery College. Neither were fully funded in the Executive’s budget. MCPS will now reduce class size guidelines further.

On child care and pre-k, this is the third year in a row that we will expand pre-k for low income kids. Including this year’s expansion, the number of poor children benefiting from full-day pre-k will reach 1500, from 750 three years ago. This has been my highest priority in early education policy.

I want to salute Council President Nancy Navarro and Council Education Committee Chair Craig Rice and for their work on early education, and the County Executive for including the funds in his budget. We are making progress, though we have more to do.

I’m particularly thrilled by our expansion of after school programs. I have worked hard to add programs every year to our budget. This year I was joined by Councilmembers Albornoz and Jawando as we added four new high poverty elementary schools to our comprehensive Excel Beyond the Bell program, bringing the total to 8 that we have added in 3 years.

Each of these programs serves 120 children, five days a week. With 8 schools, we will now reach nearly 1,000 elementary age children served every school day!

We also added 3 middle school programs and we created a new initiative called Skills for the Future to support youth STEM programs.

On transit, we were able to restore four of the seven routes proposed for reduced service in the Executive’s budget. I am disappointed that we could not restore all seven. Cutting bus service is sure to increase driving and works against our social equity and environmental goals.

I am however happy that RideOn and WMATA bus service will now be free to students, all the time. This should create a whole new generation of transit riders. Thanks Councilmember Evan Glass for your advocacy!

I am particularly grateful that my colleagues agreed to reject the Executive’s proposed cuts of $5 million to the bicycle and pedestrian “Priority Areas” program (BiPPA). This is a construction program that builds new safety infrastructure in areas of the County with older infrastructure. It has projects planned in Wheaton, Silver Spring, and along the Purple Line corridor. Thank you Transportation Chair Tom Hucker!

We also restored funding for new Metro station entrances in White Flint and Forest Glen, both badly needed to make these station areas more accessible. The Executive had proposed cutting them from the budget.

On the climate emergency, I want to thank my colleagues for supporting my proposal for $400,000 to begin a comprehensive climate change planning initiative.

And finally, we were able to restore crucial funding to our Parks system, which was slated for significant cuts in the executive’s budget. I want to thank Councilmember Friedson, our Council’s Lead for Parks, who pushed until we got it done.

You may wonder how the Council was able to fund these programs. The answer lies in changing certain priorities within the budget. We did not raise taxes. We did, however, make changes in other ways, including scaling back some compensation that was excessive.

The County Executive’s proposed 9% raises were not affordable. Scaling them back enabled the Council to add funding to many of these key priorities mentioned above. (Though my view is that the 7% raise the Council agreed to for many employees was still more than we can afford, and I opposed that proposal too).

So as for unfinished business: while we crafted a better budget, the County still has an underlying problem — we have a structural deficit. A structural deficit is when our revenues continually come in below our expenditures. It happened again this year. The budget that we passed is substantially funded by using reserves intended for retiree health expenses. That practice needs to end.

We need to fix our structural deficit by bringing our expenses in line with our revenues. The County Executive has talked about “right-sizing” County government, and Councilmembers have indicated support. That would help ensure that compensation does not grow faster than revenues, leaving room to fund critical priorities.

Going forward, we need to work together to make changes that will put us on a more sustainable path.

Thank you for reading!

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Council Update — Veirs Mill Plan and tech talent

Dear Resident,

The Council is in regular session this Tuesday. View the agenda.

The Council will receive an overview of the Veirs Mill Corridor Plan, an area stretching about four miles from Wheaton to Rockville. The area was once agricultural until a growing federal workforce and postwar boom drove the construction of workforce single-family housing. This pattern of development in the area has largely remain unchanged to this day.

The Veirs Mill Corridor Plan aims to strengthen these communities by increasing transit connectivity, improving the safety of all users of Veirs Mill Rd, particularly pedestrians and bicyclists, and supporting limited redevelopment opportunities in the corridor. Of particular importance, the Plan makes way for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line envisioned for Veirs Mill Rd. Additionally, the Plan will be the first to explicitly embrace Vision Zero principles, intending to support the County’s goal of zero deaths on our roads by 2030.

Read the Plan.

The plan’s public hearing will be on January 29, 2019 at 7:30pm, but you can also share your input on the plan by writing to the Council at county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov or using the hashtag #VeirsMillPlan2019 on social media.

Following are some other highlights of the Council’s week:

Discussion on the tech talent pipeline
Council economic development and education committees will convene a discussion on how the County can improve its tech talent pipeline.

As Amazon establishes its second headquarters in Northern Virginia and tech jobs grow in our region, we need to make sure that companies growing in Montgomery County have access to the talent they need and that all of our young people, regardless of zipcode, have access to jobs.

Many of these jobs don’t require a PHD or even a bachelor’s degree but rather an associates degree or certificate. An effective “tech talent pipeline” will require close coordination between business, educational institutions (MCPS, Montgomery College, USG/UMD), non-profit organizations, and County Government.

FY19 Savings Plan to be approved
The Council is poised to approve a $45.7 million reduction in spending for the current fiscal year. Council committees reviewed the County Executive’s recommended reductions and largely concurred with the recommendations. A decline in 2018 revenues necessitated the reductions in spending.

Council weighs in on proposed state legislation
County staff will brief the Council on state legislation relevant to the County. The Council will weigh in on legislation covering topics including drug overdose and infectious disease clinics, e-scooters, and forest conservation.

State grant to improve retention of first-year teachers in Title I schools
The County received a $500,000 state grant to administer a program that provides personalized training opportunities for first-year teachers in Title I schools. The program gives the teachers improved teaching and learning skills as well as a better understanding on how to connect with the students and families they serve.

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Councilmember, At-large

Council Making Strides on Pre-K

On November 1, 2018, I had the opportunity to join Superintendent Jack Smith, his early education team, and members of the Board of Education for the grand opening of the MacDonald Knolls Early Childhood Center. You can read the news coverage highlighting that event here.

Grand Opening of Regional Pre K Facility

This is the first “regional pre-k facility” implemented by MCPS. It is a big step forward in the ongoing efforts by MCPS and the County Council to fund pre-k for low-income 4 year olds. There are about 100 slots for eligible children at the Center. There are also about 175 children enrolled in a pre-k program run by the Arc of Montgomery County at that same location, with about 1/3 of those children having special needs.

Three years ago, I co-authored legislation with Councilmember Nancy Navarro requiring the County to pass a Childcare Strategic Plan and create a Child Care Policy Officer. I did not get everything I wanted in that bill, such as creating an Office of Child Care independent from our County’s HHS, but the compromise bill that I passed with the support of Councilmember Navarro was a clear a step forward. The County then proceeded to hire a Child Care Policy Officer and to draft the Child Care Strategic Plan, which engaged the educator, parent, and provider community.

One of the recommendations from the plan was to focus on expanding part-day Head Start and pre-k programs to full day, and then to expand programs for low-income children in pre-k. For me, that recommendation was a light-bulb as it provided a real path forward to expand pre-k programs. Up to that point, all of the talk about universal pre-k seemed to go nowhere as a result of an overwhelming price tag. As opposed to needing $100 million or more to create “universal” pre-k, we identified that we could provide a classroom seat for all low income four year olds in the County for about $35 million. In this case low-income is defined as up to 300% of the Federal Poverty Level (which is, for example, about $78,000 in annual income for a family of 3).

Based on the plan, two years ago I recommended to my colleagues on the Council that we add $5 million in the 2017 (FY18) budget to move towards the goal. Because many councilmembers care about this issue, we were successful in securing $2.5 million to fund full day Head Start and pre-k through MCPS, and to add $2.5 million to child care subsidies. As a result we created hundreds of slots for low income children.

Following on that success, with early education clearly identified as a priority for the MCPS Board of Education and our visionary superintendent Jack Smith, this year, in my Council President’s budget (FY19), MCPS requested $2.5 million in additional resources for pre-k expansions. The Council did a little better, funding not only that request but an additional $800,000 for more children to be eligible, thanks in particular to support from the Council’s Education Committee chairman Craig Rice.

As a result of these steps, there are now 700 more children enrolled in full day Head Start and pre-k programs through MCPS than there were 2 years ago. We are more than $5 million towards the goal of covering low income children. Perhaps even more importantly, we have finally taken ownership of the issue and we are marshalling resources to address the need, step by step. This is what some call “universal incrementalism,” which means having a vision for a universal service but also identifying how to get there one step at a time and actually taking those steps rather than talking about it.

Child care subsidies are also expanding. This year I have highlighted the need for our subsidies to cover a sufficient cost of care such that low income families can actually afford to participate. That has been an issue because with our existing subsidy structure, many families would be required to pay as much as a third or even a half of their income for child care — even with a subsidy. That is not tenable for low income families and as a result they remain without high quality care.

The exciting news is that this year, the state legislature passed a law authored by Senator Nancy King (D39), significantly raising state child care subsidy payments into the County. We are eagerly awaiting news about how those funds will become available.

These are crucial investments because, unfortunately, only about half of all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, and only about 25% of low-income children are ready to learn. The achievement gap opens up at the youngest age. In fact, as Jack Smith explained to me when we talked at this event, there is a physical process or impact on a young child’s brain from exposure to language. Neural pathways are created by the brain as words are heard and repeated. Not unlike a network of roads through the brain paved by words. Children that are not sufficiently exposed to words and language at a young age, which is a problem from child care that is not up to standards, will not have that physical conditioning and that is one reason they enter kindergarten behind. Quality pre-k programs can help them catch up.

Located at 10611 Tenbrook Dr., Silver Spring, MD and fully enrolled, it is our hope that the MacDonald Knolls Early Childhood Center will serve as a model for future childhood centers. This landmark achievement is a testament to the Council’s commitment that every child should start kindergarten ready to learn and prepared for a bright future in our public educational system.

For a recent and thorough review of this issue, please read our Council Staff Report.

The Council Connection — funding for MCPS

Council Connection Masthead

Council President’s Message

After several months and many worksessions, the Council will make final decisions on the County budget this week and next. The County’s budget totals over $5 billion, supporting critical services from police, fire and rescue, transportation, housing to libraries, parks, and recreation.

This week I would like to take you inside the priority that constitutes almost half of the entire County budget, Montgomery County Public Schools.

The Board of Education requested, the County Executive recommended, and the County Council is poised to approve an FY19 Operating Budget for Montgomery County Public Schools of $2.6 billion, an increase of $73 million or 3% over FY18. Much of the increase is due to continued enrollment growth. MCPS projects an increase of over 1,700 students in FY19. This is 100% of the funding requested by the Board of Education.

The FY19 MCPS budget request maintains or enhances several important programs, including:

  • maintaining the class-size reductions approved by the Council in FY17;
  • expanding two-way immersion dual language programs to three additional elementary schools;
  • increasing counselor and psychologist positions to address the physical, psychological, and social well-being of students;
  • adding new career pathway programs for high-school students;
  • expanding needed pre-kindergarten programs and services.
  • and maintaining funding approved by the Council last year to expand Head Start programs from half-day to full-day, shown by the research as a key component in maximizing the impact of early childhood education.

With respect to funding allocation, the local contribution of tax dollars would fund 66% of MCPS’ request, with the state providing most of the remainder. Montgomery County continues to rank near the top of all Maryland jurisdictions in total per pupil funding and the proportion of local funding provided.

The next few weeks we will take a deeper look into the rest of the budget. Stay tuned.

Cordially,

Hans Riemer Signature

Hans Riemer
Council President

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