County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) often portrays himself as a fiscal steward, who upon starting his first term in 2007 was met with the the economic recession and the responsibility of reining in county spending.
On Wednesday night, in his first State of the County address in four years, Leggett amplified that point, this time with the prospect of facing his predecessor in a 2014 re-election campaign.
“There were longstanding deficiencies in county finances, years of living beyond our means even during the good times,” Leggett told the audience in the Silver Spring Civic Building. “When I was elected to this office, county spending had increased during each of the previous four years by an average of more than 10 percent, an astounding 42 percent over four years. Simply put, that was not sustainable.”
The man in charge of the county then was former County Executive Doug Duncan (D), who has announced he will run for his old job in 2014.
Leggett has said he is undecided on running for re-election against Duncan, telling us in October he didn’t anticipate running again before reconsidering in November. If he does run, it’s clear what much of his message will be.
“Together, these conditions resulted in a long-term structural deficit in the county’s budget, with multi-billion dollar budget gaps. And the worst deficit was the will to make tough decisions,” Leggett said in his address. “Six years ago, when I assumed the role of captain of this ship, if you looked at the ocean liner “Montgomery County” above the water line, the ship appeared sturdy and strong.
“But, below the waterline, this magnificent ship was leaking,” Leggett said. “The engine was defective and risked running short on fuel. To make matters worse, the ship was about to sail into the troubled waters of a major national recession.”
Leggett said he helped the county close $2.6 billion in budget shortfalls over five years by putting the focus on core services and adopting a philosophy of “shared sacrifice.”
That included higher taxes with somewhat reduced services, county employee furloughs and an almost 10 percent reduction of the county government’s workforce.
Leggett said that approach helped allow the county to keep its AAA Bond rating and see a 3.4 percent increase in jobs over the last three years and a 30 percent increase in the value of the county’s taxable property.
“The numbers that we want to go up are going up and the numbers that we want to go down are going down,” Leggett said. “I call that progress.”
The roughly 45-minute speech included talk about the importance of creating high-tech and high-wage jobs, maintaining the county’s focus on its school system, public safety, senior issues and open government.
He closed by introducing three new initiatives:
1. A “Montgomery County Open For Business” initiative that would work to streamline the development process, which Leggett called, “complicated, fragmented, redundant and very expensive.” He is asking the Department of Permitting Services to organize all agencies and find ways to cut the time it takes for development proposals, specifically citing the transportation and environmental review process.
2. A recommendation to invest more in an adult English language training program, so that every adult in the county who wants to learn english has the opportunity.
“For every dollar we invest in adult English training, it brings us three dollars in higher productivity,” Leggett said.
3. A partnership with MCPS to close the achievement gap, which would include expanding an existing tutoring program for 2,000 struggling middle school students across the county.