Lawmakers in Montgomery County, Maryland, are set to give final approval to a $6 billion operating budget billed as a road map for a post-pandemic recovery, and also say the county is moving “full steam ahead” with a plan to lift most coronavirus restrictions come Friday.
The council is scheduled to vote Thursday on the $6 billion operating budget, which takes effect July 1.
Among other things, the budget holds the police department almost flat by eliminating some school resource officer positions, increases the county’s version of the earned-income tax credit for low income workers and keeps Ride On bus rides free through September.
“This $6 billion operating budget doesn’t just give us a road map for the next final months of the pandemic; it sets us up for long term recovery and revitalization, beyond the pandemic,” said Council President Tom Hucker during an online news briefing with reporters Monday.
Last week, the county council gave the budget preliminary approval.
The budget adds $25 million to the Working Families Income Supplement to double the state’s tax refund for low-income families, and also expands the supplement to undocumented workers who have individual taxpayer ID numbers instead of Social Security numbers. The budget also includes $24 million for rental assistance.
The funding for the Health and Human Services Department is slated to increase by 8%, to about $363 million, which Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz called “appropriate given the tremendous need that we’re seeing in a variety of different areas, particularly within our social safety net across the entire county. We believe it is not just morally right, to support our constituents who are in crisis and need, but there’s also a direct economic benefit to making sure families keep from falling off the cliff.”
More than half the budget’s tax-supported budget is allocated to the Montgomery County Public Schools system — $2.78 billion. In addition, the budget fully funds Montgomery College at $312.6 million without tuition increases.
Police funding nearly flat; Fire and Rescue up
The council’s budget would essentially “flat-fund” the Montgomery County Police Department at $283 million, Hucker said. That’s less than a 1% increase from the current level.
The budget removes 27 positions, including five school resource officers at MCPS middle schools, six traffic complaint officers, five patrol investigations officers and the Centralized Auto Theft Unit.
However, the proposal calls for adding a new Internal Affairs Division to help speed up internal investigations. The budget also includes funding to replace old stun guns “to give our officers a working nonlethal option for any use of force,” Hucker said.
The county’s Fire and Rescue Department is slated for a 3.4% increase — to $232.7 million.
In addition, the budget includes funding for six new licensed clinical social workers to expand the county’s mobile crisis outreach team as an alternative to a police response for people experiencing mental health crises.
The transportation portion of the budget comes in at $228.6 million. The budget extends free rides on the county’s Ride On bus service through September and also provides money to gradually return bus service to pre-pandemic levels. The budget also funds the acquisition of 10 more electric buses.
‘Full steam ahead’ with reopening Friday
The day after the council votes on the budget, the county is set to enter the final phase of its reopening plan, under which nearly all coronavirus capacity restrictions are lifted and businesses can resume normal operations if they choose.
As it stands now, capacity limits inside restaurants and other businesses are capped at 75%.
The move comes as the county has seen improving coronavirus numbers and a steadily climbing number of vaccinations.
Overall, 55% of county residents are fully vaccinated, according to county and CDC data, and more than 60% of residents have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. That includes more than 21,000 young people 12 to 15 years old who are newly eligible for the shots.
“Because of all those efforts, we are moving full speed ahead with May 28,” Albornoz said.
The county adopted a reopening plan last month that tied the lifting of restrictions with the county’s vaccination rate.
Phase 3 of Montgomery County’s reopening plan begins 6 a.m. Friday.
Mask rules will also ease Friday. Currently, county regulations require unvaccinated people to wear face coverings while indoors in public settings. That will shift to guidance only, in line with state rules.
Albornoz said the county is in a bit of a “gray” area when it comes to mask rules and enforcement. He stressed that even with the lifting of restrictions Friday, private businesses are still free to keep in place their own rules.
“We should all be respectful and understanding of this particular transition and where we are now,” he said.
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