Montgomery County Council votes on $5.8B budget

The Montgomery County Council voted on a $5.8 billion budget that includes an increase in parking fees in the Bethesda, Maryland, area and funding for education, libraries and public transit, among others.

Drivers will see an increase in street parking fees in the Bethesda area, but fees in parking lots in Silver Spring and Wheaton will mostly stay the same starting in July.

Under the resolution voted on Thursday by the council, street parking at meters in Bethesda within the parking lot district will increase to $3.25 an hour; and the hours and fees for Silver Spring and Wheaton parking lot districts will remain the same.

In a preliminary or “straw vote,” the nine-member county council voted on a $5.8 billion operating budget for fiscal year 2020 that “doubles down” on the county’s investment on education, according to Council member Andrew Friedson.

The $2.6 billion for schools “fully funds” the Montgomery County school system’s budget request. The school system projects an enrollment of 164,477 students in the next fiscal year, Friedson said. That represents an increase of 1,877 students.

The council voted to include $314.7 million for Montgomery College, an increase of $3.1 million.

The council also approved spending $227 million on transportation, including road maintenance, leaf collection and the county’s Ride On bus service. Council members added $100,000 to the budget for pedestrian safety audits designed to make walking and biking safer countywide.

The Kids Ride Free program is being expanded so that anyone under 18 years old can use Ride On free of charge.

Council member Evan Glass said the service is crucial for students who need reliable public transit.

“There’s no reason a student should be walking in the cold or the rain because they couldn’t afford bus fare. And there’s no reason a student should ever miss a job or an internship because they didn’t have a reliable way of getting home,” Glass said.

Under the budget approved by the council, programs for children, youth and families will get $85.7 million, including added money for mental health therapists at two schools. There is also $7 million in programming for the expansion of infant and toddler care, as well as early childhood education.

Programs for the homeless, people with developmental disabilities and immunization efforts will also be funded under the $328.6 million spending plan for health and human services.

Council member Gabe Albornoz, who sits on a committee dealing with those services, applauded the budget, and said, “Our safety net remains strong. But it’s being challenged every day because of the increasing poverty we’re seeing in the county, the changing demographics we’re seeing in the county, and the record number of caseloads across the board.”

The council added money to the county’s Department of Public Libraries, voting for a total of $43 million. The vote also expands the hours at the Damascus and Long Branch libraries, something noted by Council member Will Jawando.

“Our libraries are not just a place to check out books,” Jawando said. “They are job centers, media hubs and community gathering places.”

He recalled his own experience growing up in the Long Branch community. “My public library helped me on the road to learning,” Jawando said.

The council also voted to approve contracts with the unions that represent county employees, which include firefighters, police and a broad swath of county workers represented by the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization. The agreements the council is approving are lower than those recommended by County Executive Marc Elrich, but council members expressed concerns over the “sustainability” of employee compensation costs.

Council members Friedson and Hans Riemer referenced their own concerns over the county’s structural deficit. Riemer told his colleagues, “We really need to tackle that and make some changes.”

“I continue to be concerned about balancing budgets by deferring funding of our obligations and by using one-time savings to fund ongoing costs,” Friedson said.

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