Pandemic ‘unknowns’ steer 2021 Montgomery County budget

Montgomery County Commissioners approved a trimmer 2021 budget on Tuesday, but leaders say the $897.6 million will still serve the needs of county residents.
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Montgomery County Commissioners approved a trimmer 2021 budget on Tuesday, but leaders say the $897.6 million will still serve the needs of county residents.

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

Hedging against uncertain revenue due to the pandemic, Montgomery County Commission on Tuesday approved a trimmer 2021 budget. But leaders say the $897.6 million will still serve the needs of county residents.

“We’re used to a budget with more initiatives in it,” said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert. “The impact of COVID-19 has had an impact not just on our budget, but on our operations … The county is stable, and we are able to continue to provide core services to our citizens.”

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The 2021 budget approved for county offices and agencies on a calendar year appropriation is roughly 2% less than the $914.5 million first budgeted for this year.

Colbert, who presented the budget to commissioners, said there remain many unknowns moving into 2021, including whether new federal stimulus will reach local governments and whether consumer spending will increase or decrease.

“It was really difficult this year because of those unknowns,” he said. “We know how they affected us this year and we are hopeful that the pandemic will be under control in 2021, but we cannot assume that it will be.”

General fund departmental budgets were cut a minimum 3% across-the-board, with some cutting deeper to bring the total decrease to about 5.8% leaving $170.6 million in the general fund.

The county was able to present a budget with no layoffs or furloughs, but the 2021 budget freezes non-essential hiring and raises will go to only employees contractually due. The county is also experiencing a 7% Increase in health insurance rates, Colbert said.

The county has budgeted 33 more full- and part-time employees for a total of 4,272. Of the new positions, 28 will be in the sheriff’s office, primarily jail corrections officers, Colbert said.

“Overall, we expect that personnel, because of the hiring freeze, will be pretty much flat-funded,” he said.

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While the jail will get new positions, the county is delaying a jail modernization project, Colbert said.

“We absolutely know that upgrades need to be made, but we just don’t have the funding available right now to do everything we want to,” he said. “We are hopeful the state capital plan will include some jail funding.”

Colbert said general fund revenue is expected to slide for multiple reasons: an estimated 5.6% decrease in sales tax, an 11% decrease in criminal justice charges for services, a 22.4% decrease in investment income and lower local government fund distributions to the county from the state.

Sales taxes accounted for about $99.7 million in county revenue in 2019 and was estimated to bring in about $101.3 million this year before the pandemic hit. Collections dipped 13.9% and 11.1% in the first two full months of the pandemic. Although rebounding some, the county is bracing for sales taxes to fall about $5.7 million.

“We are far below where we thought we would land in 2020,” Colbert said about sales tax revenue.

Colbert said the county will continue to fund Preschool Promise, workforce development programs and support community arts and culture but with no increase. The county’s Economic Development and Government Equity, or ED/GE grants, normally offered in two rounds a year will move to a half-year program getting $1.25 million for 2021, according to the county.

John Parks, the county’s budget director, said elected officials and county departments came together under difficult circumstances to collaborate on next year’s appropriations.

“This budget wasn’t what we were expecting to do a year ago,” he said.

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Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman said the county’s Office of Management and Budget “worked a miracle.”

“I’m not going to say this budget is painless,” she said. “It’s going to be a tough year next year, we know that and hopefully there won’t be expenses we’re not counting on.”

Colbert said “everyone is drained” by the pandemic but that a vaccine may put the county’s finances on an upward trajectory.

“We brought the budget in really at a reduced level,” Colbert said. “I feel like if we can get through the first two quarters of the year, we can come out of this and be in a great place to do some great community projects.”