Opinion: Montgomery County Can Thrive Without Raising Property Taxes

My parents were people who dedicated their free time to helping others. My father was a union plumber. My mother was an active member of our small town’s volunteer ambulance squad. In their respective endeavors, I remember both often being called out in the middle of the night to respond to emergency situations.

 

I also remember my father was never happy if the last person to leave a room didn’t turn out the lights. And my mother was insistent that every bag that came into our house had a second or third use.

Among the things I learned from them was you can be dedicated to helping others and still be careful about how your money is spent.

 

As a lifelong progressive Democrat who has lived in Montgomery County for more than 40 years, I am running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council because I want our county to be its best – now and for years to come.

 

In my career as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post and later working in state and local government, I have learned that it takes experience, insight and passion to preserve what is special about our county while continuing to meet its constantly changing needs.

 

This is a county that has always responded to the needs of all its residents – a trait we must continue. Montgomery County collects the money it needs every year to fulfill that mission, but lately, we have not been very efficient in spending it.

 

Neil Greenberger of Damascus, a Democrat, is running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council.

 

The recent report that the county has a possible $120 million budget deficit in this fiscal year is a prime example. Several times in my 11 years working for county government, similar situations have arisen, prompting the call for mid-year “savings plans.” Yes, there is some pain for department and division heads during these so-called budget emergencies, but they always find ways not to spend more. No one loses their jobs. All services get addressed. The residents never notice a reduction in programs.

 

The bottom line is this: If Montgomery County had been spending its money better in the first half of the year, more programs could have been better served. Which begs the question: Where would that money have gone if there wasn’t a mid-year budget emergency?

 

I believe ours can be a county where all residents thrive – and we can do it without raising property taxes during the next four years.

 

Last year, the county council increased average household property taxes by hundreds, and in some neighborhoods, by thousands of dollars. Are the residents of Montgomery County satisfied with what they got for their money? Does anyone even really know where that extra tax money went? And now, some people running for the council are already hinting they would consider raising taxes again.

 

I will guarantee property taxes will not increase above the county charter limit (the rate of inflation) for the next four years. A provision in the county charter, approved by county voters in 2008, requires any increase in property taxes above the charter limit to be approved by all nine councilmembers. I will not vote to approve a property tax increase over the next four years.

 

We need leaders who will ensure Montgomery County is an affordable place to live throughout all phases of life, including as a place that enables people to retire here.

 

We want our county to grow. But we need to carefully plan for further development, to protect what we treasure, while providing roads and schools to support that growth. We must have better transportation strategies that can be implemented in the next few years – not decades. We need public transit plans that are realistic.

 

We keep adding development but not new transit, new roads or enough school capacity to support it. The current council keeps approving development with reduced parking requirements. These plans defy reality. Most Montgomery residents still love, and need, their cars.

 

We want our children to go to excellent schools with teachers beyond compare. And we want to have the finest libraries – inspirational and educational safe harbors for generations to come.

 

We also need to feel secure – in our homes and on our streets. That is why we must continue to have the nation’s best police department and fire and rescue service.

 

This is a county where a local road should never have a pothole. And when it snows, no Montgomery County resident should be stranded at home because we could not figure out how to get a plow down their street for days. There are better ways to address these things, but we have been stuck in the mode of “this is the way we always do it.” Other communities do it better. We can too.

 

We must ensure that Montgomery County remains a greener, more sustainable place to live. We need to make recycling easier. It’s time the county adopts single-stream (comingled) recycling – like other nearby communities have – to encourage everyone to do it. Recycling must also be convenient in parks and public spaces. Right now, that’s not the case. And we should have a program that provides incentives for older homes with oil heat to convert to more efficient forms of heating.

 

The county’s speed camera program helps make many of our roads safer and protects our children as they walk to school. But do we want other speed cameras to be hidden behind bushes or placed on downhill slopes as money makers more than traffic enforcers? Montgomery County should be better than that.

 

Those in need must receive basic services – whether provided by the government or by our great nonprofit organizations. We are making our nonprofits spend too much time each year begging for government support when we can put some of that funding into the regular operating budget and let the organizations spend more time helping others.

 

There are lots of people seeking at-large seats on the county council this year. They are offering many ideas. Residents will get to vote for four of them.

 

If having a councilmember who will listen to residents, and having a councilmember who will guarantee to keep property taxes from increasing, are important, I hope they will make one of those votes for me.

 

Neil H. Greenberger

Neil Greenberger of Damascus, a Democrat, is running for an at-large seat on the Montgomery County Council. He can be reached at greenbergerforcouncil.com/. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. 

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