‘This should outrage you’: Report says Montgomery Co. economy in trouble

ROCKVILLE, Md. — As the race for Montgomery County executive heats up, a new report paints an alarming picture of the economic future of Maryland’s most affluent county.

The report, commissioned by the nonpartisan group Empower Montgomery, said the county has been plagued by “extraordinarily soft” job growth in recent years and faces “an increasingly risky economic and fiscal environment.”

The report was presented at a forum organized by the Montgomery County Business Roundtable, and the six Democrats running for county executive were invited to hear its findings and discuss some of the issues raised.

“This should outrage you,” a fiery Maryland State Del. Bill Frick said at the forum. “This should make you angry. Instead of handing out bagels and muffins they should have been handing out pitchforks and torches.”

Titled “The Coming Storm: How Years of Economic Underperformance are Catching up with Montgomery County,” the report argued job growth in the county’s private sector has been way too sluggish for a region that otherwise checks off so many attractive traits.

Between 2011 and 2016, the county added just six net new businesses establishments — which is about how many businesses are found in the typical strip mall, the report noted. Statewide, the number of businesses established increased by nearly 6,300, according to the report

The report also criticized the county for borrowing too much money to pay its bills, saying the county is already in a “downward fiscal spiral” and that it’ll soon become a major problem if the tax base doesn’t begin to expand soon.

The report was compiled by the by Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore-based consultancy group.

“We’re not making up stories about the climate and what we’re facing now from an economic development standpoint,” former Rockville major Rose Krasnow said at the forum.

During a question about whether fiscal impact statements should be attached to county legislation the way it is to state legislation in Annapolis, she suggested the county’s minimum wage wouldn’t be going up to $15 per hour in the coming years if that were the case.

“We can do so much better, so much better,” said businessman David Blair, the only candidate without electoral experience.

“I was the CEO of a publicly traded company. If I had delivered results like that I’d have been fired. Or I guess in this case term-limited out,” he said, referencing a recent voter referendum that prevents three of his opponents — George Leventhal, Roger Berliner, and Marc Elrich — from running for another term on the county council.

Berliner: We’re doing better than Fairfax

Not everyone shared the doom and gloom perspective.

The three departing councilmen acknowledged room for improvement in some specific cases, such as permitting or the county’s energy tax, which was supposed to be temporary but has instead increased exponentially. But they also seemed to downplay the severity of the report, suggesting their view of the county’s financial situation isn’t so dark.

“We have outperformed Fairfax” [County], argued councilman Roger Berliner. “We have outperformed Fairfax on gross regional product, we have outperformed Fairfax on private sector job growth, we have outperformed Fairfax on private sector wage growth, we have outperformed Fairfax on resident employment growth, and our office vacancy rate is” lower, too, he argued.

Elrich argued that D.C. isn’t getting any criticism even though businesses there pay more in taxes and are faced with more regulations.

Leventhal vowed to make “customer service” a better priority in the county, but at the same time he vowed “you will never hear me say that our business climate is horrible, or that this is a bad place to invest, which two gentlemen [Frick and Blair] have said here now. That’s not how to market this county.”

Leventhal criticized Frick for what he called speaking with his “hair on fire” and suggested the business community needs to be more active in pushing for better policies.

“Political leadership is only part of the equation,” he said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport. If the business community wants to be heard, you have to speak to us.”

Blair took umbrage at that, saying in his dealings in the private sector, local governments often proactively approached him to find out ways things could be better.

Organizers of the forum noted that since Montgomery County is dominated by Democrats, members of the business community who want to elect someone with their interests in mind should register as Democrats ahead of the June 26 primary, since that will likely end up being the election that determines the eventual county executive.

Republican Robin Ficker is on the ballot to take on whichever Democratic candidate in the general election. Montgomery County hasn’t elected a Republican county executive since the 1970s.

“My guess is if you elect the same people you’re going to have the same problems,” Blair said.

WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report. 

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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